Annual address was delayed after prior Mayor Akins’ resignation
By Stephen Floyd, Ashland.news
Ashland Mayor Tonya Graham sees a path out of the difficult challenges Ashland has endured in recent years.
During the annual State of the City Address on Wednesday, Feb. 22, Graham made the case for an economically-strong, culturally-diverse “Ashland of the future” she said is within reach if the city and community stay the course.
“The Ashland of the future has a robust local economy,” said Graham. “Its public services are well-funded. It is a leader in climate action. It is a diverse community because it has figured out how to provide affordable housing and childcare. It is lively and innovative. And, perhaps most importantly, it is authentically welcoming to all residents and visitors alike.”
Graham gave the address just two weeks after being appointed mayor Feb. 7 following the Jan. 27 resignation of former Mayor Julie Akins.
In light of Akins’ abrupt departure, the address was postponed from its normally scheduled time of late January. City Manager Joe Lessard said the City Charter does not specify when the address is to be given, only that it must occur annually after the first City Council meeting in January.
Much of Graham’s address focused on gains toward affordable housing.
She said, during 2022, 89 new affordable rental units were occupied by low-income families. Ashland was also able to secure $400,000 in grants for local housing advocates and similar community groups.
She also highlighted the City Council’s support for Grand Terrace, a proposed 230-unit apartment complex that would provide 38 units of low-income housing. She said ongoing efforts to develop the old Croman Mill property is expected to result in additional housing units, as well as commercial spaces.
Ashland also began developing a Housing Production Strategy last year, which will identify further action the city can take to achieve affordable housing goals. Graham said the council is expected to finalize the plan this spring.
Climate policy was also a significant focus, and Graham described steps that Public Works and Community Development departments have taken toward solutions.
She said Ashland is working with state regulators to develop Climate Friendly & Equitable Communities that reduce climate pollution by reducing traffic emissions. The council may be asked to consider changes this year to local zoning and land use regulations to help achieve this goal.
The Electric Department completed a Wildfire Mitigation Plan, and this year will increase incentives for local homes to become more energy-efficient. The city added six electric vehicles to its fleet in 2022.
The Fire Department held multiple trainings for the public on how to reduce wildfires risks at home, and how to create defensible landscapes. They also conducted prescribed burns on 160 acres in and around the city.
Graham also addressed the staffing losses experienced at City Hall during 2022, and said the city currently has 19 open positions out of roughly 50 jobs vacated last year. She said the city has rebuilt its Human Resources Department and completed three labor negotiations last year.
She praised both the Fire Department and the Police Department for continuing to respond to calls for service despite staffing challenges. She said firefighters responded to 5,264 calls for service in 2022, including 946 fires and 4,313 medical calls, while police responded to 27,500 calls for service, an average of 75 per day.
“We are fortunate to have a police department led by law enforcement professionals who fully embrace community peace keeping and a team of officers who understand and work hard to address social equity and racial justice issues,” said Graham.
Looking ahead to 2023, Graham said the city will work hard to maintain and improve public services, while also being an “exceptional partner” with local community organizations and neighborhood groups.
“We will work hard across our community, and we will sometimes disagree — wildly,” said Graham. “But we will also remain good neighbors, maybe even good friends, because that is what this moment in time is calling us to do.”
She added Ashland would “double down” on community outreach, including improvements to the city’s website. She said a town hall held Jan. 30, which solicited public input on a broad range of topics, would be the first of many such engagements to come.
She said opportunities for the community to pursue these goals are as varied as the community itself. Graham encouraged residents to shop local and support the local economy, and to be welcoming to guests such as tourists and university students. She also said it is important to help neighbors and remember that large issues like systemic racism and bias are challenges everyone can play a role in improving.
She said the practical steps toward a stronger Ashland must acknowledge the gravity of challenges the community has faced and continues facing. Recent disasters like the COVID-19 pandemic and Almeda Fire may conflict with the optimism of a brighter future for Ashland, but do not have to extinguish it.
“In settled times, community is about parades, sharing good times, and lending a hand to our neighbors,” said Graham. “In unsettled times, community takes on a whole new meaning.
“In Ashland, it still involves parades, but it’s also about working together, sharing what we have, getting our hands on the rope, and leaning in hard to protect what we love. There is no doubt that we are in unsettled times, but unsettled times also bring great opportunity if we can strike the balance between steady and innovative.”