ashland.news
July 18, 2024

New director hired, Ashland Parks & Recreation Commission announces

Ashland Parks & Recreation Commission commissioners give Leslie Eldridge, seated with back to camera, a round of applause after she completed her final interim director's report at the June 12 meeting, the same meeting where they announced the hiring of Rocky Houston as her successor. They'll vote on Houston's hiring at the July 10 meeting. Screen capture from RVTV video
June 13, 2024

Rocky Houston, currently overseeing parks and land division for a Washington state county, expected to come on board in July

By Morgan Rothborne, Ashland.news

Ashland Parks & Recreation Commissioners announced at Wednesday’s commission meeting that the parks and land division manager for Clark County, Washington, has been hired as the new commission director, overseeing operations of about 35 employees and an annual budget of about $6.7 million.

Rocky Houston is expected to take the place of Interim Director Leslie Eldridge, who had applied to fill the position permanently, in mid-July, according to APRC Commission Chair Jim Bachman. Eldridge, at that time a parks commissioner, stepped into the position last August after nine-year director Michael Black resigned, effective in July.

It was not immediately clear when commissioners voted on the decision to hire Houston. State law says all official actions by governing bodies must be taken by public vote.

Commissioners conducted an “exhaustive search process,” Bachman said, yielding 19 applicants. In a series of executive sessions, nine were determined qualified “on paper,” he said, and six were invited to interview via Zoom. Three were selected and brought into town for in-person interviews and tours of all parks and facilities. 

Houston is a Southern Oregon native and an experienced candidate for the role with a background working in parks around Oregon and Washington for his entire career, Bachman said, and will be formally introduced to the city after his arrival.

“As a native southern Oregonian, it is great to be back,” Houston is quoted as saying in a news release issued by the city late Thursday afternoon. “I look forward to working with you, the community, to continue the legacy of developing and managing premier recreational programming, active adult programming and recreational facilities.”

Rocky Houston, soon-to-be new Ashland Parks & Recreation Commission director, as seen in his Linkedin profile photo.

A LinkedIn profile for Houston says he has been employed as the parks and lands division manager in Clark County, Washington, since 2021. Previous employment history includes Parks Department and Lands Department Director of Douglas County from 2016 to 2021, State Trails Coordinator for the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department from 2004 to 2016, and Gold Beach Branch Manager for the Oregon Department of Health and Human Services from 2000 to 2004. 

In 2010 Houston graduated from Portland State University with a masters degree in Public Administration. He also holds bachelor’s of science degrees in psychology and history from Western Oregon University, according to the Linkedin profile. 

The announcement was not listed on the agenda prior to the meeting. At the beginning of the meeting, Bachman announced the addition as a “director search update,” under the “additions or deletions to the agenda,” section. He stated he received notice from the city of Ashland’s Human Resources Department that the contract was finalized the morning after the agenda for the Wednesday meeting had already been published. 

“We made a determination some time ago, but we’re unable to talk about it because it was a contingent offer and required a background check before it could be finalized,” Bachman said. 

Asked by reporters after the meeting when the decision was made, Bachman stated it was done in an executive session one month ago. Bachman then said he would not comment any further on the process. 

Ashland resident Candace Williams approached the dais and criticized Bachman for the decision. 

“How did this happen when you already had a perfectly fabulous person?” she said. 

Bachman responded that there was a process and all five commissioners made the decision. Williams asked how a person would go about protesting this decision. Bachman gestured to Carmel Zahran, assistant attorney for the city of Ashland who was seated at the dais with commissioners during the meeting. 

According to the Final Decision Prohibition on the Oregon Department of Justice website, “No executive session may be held for the purpose of taking any final action or making any final decision. … A governing body meeting in executive session must return to public session before taking final action.”

Approached outside council chambers, Williams expressed suspicion and disappointment in the decision not to hire Eldridge. 

“You could see from her presentation that she has totally changed the nature of parks. … Everybody you talk with that’s worked with her loved her,” she said. 

Williams stated she believed previous APRC director Black had parks “in the toilet,” and that she had been impressed with Eldridge’s work and appreciated her ability to make parks meetings feel fun. 

Interim Director Eldridge delivered her final director’s report in the role at Wednesday’s meeting, highlighting projects under way such as the restoration of the Daniel Meyer Pool and the ongoing process to create East Main Park. She was proud of a series of “inaugural” events at the Ashland Japanese Garden and photos of staff enjoying a softball game at the annual staff social in May. 

“This is the final installment of the Leslie show,” she said. 

Leslie Eldridge, Interim Parks Director (left) was on hand to talk about park operations at the city Coffee & Conversation in May. Ashland.news photo by Bob Palermini

At the close of the meeting, Eldridge turned to a slide with a photo of dolphins that said “So long, and thanks for all the fish.” 

She expressed gratitude to the staff of APRC and pride in the work they had done together. 

“I just want to thank and recognize the dedicated, compassionate and hard-working staff of Ashland Parks and Recreation for their tireless service to our community. In many ways working for parks can seem like a thankless job where one receives constant scrutiny, requests from the public and electeds, an ever increasing workload and ever increasing acreage to manage with a dwindling number of hands and dollars to do the work,” she said. 

Eldridge went on to say she “didn’t get it as a commissioner,” but does now. She said it is the staff of APRC who make the parks of Ashland paradise, for which she and her family are eternally grateful. And when she and her former employees inevitably bump into each other on trails and in parks, “I’m going to say positive things like, ‘Thank you.’” 

Bachman expressed his appreciation for Eldridge’s work at the close of her presentation. 

“I want to give you my heartfelt thanks and admiration for all that you personally have put into it,” he said. “I think you handled the interim position in a very very marvelous way and I will be eternally grateful.” 

He invited his fellow commissioners to comment but they did not. Commissioner Stefani Seffinger was absent due to illness.  

Email Ashland.news reporter Morgan Rothborne at morganr@ashland.news.

June 13: Added quote from news release.

June 14: Incorrect statement saying Comissioner Stefani Seffinger is stepping back from her role on the Ashland Parks & Recreation Commission removed. APRC Commission Chair Jim Bachman said Seffinger is pulling back from serving as liaison to the city Public Arts Advisory Committee, not the commission.

Related stories:

Ashland Parks & Recreation to announce new director Wednesday, sources say (June 11, 2024)

Ashland Parks & Recreation Commission fast tracks hiring process for director position (March 7, 2024)

Prudent spending, new hires, new projects — parks ends 2023 with series of small wins (Dec. 9, 2023)

Ashland Parks & Rec contends with ethics complaint, budget error (Nov. 1, 2023)

New Ashland Parks & Recreation director embraces possibilities (Oct. 10, 2023)

Parks commission picks commissioner as interim director (July 14, 2023)

Ashland Parks & Recreation director resigns (June 1, 2023)

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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