June 21, 2024

Seeking common grounds at ‘Coffee & Conversation’

City Manager Joe Lessard (standing, center right) answers a question at the city’s coffee and conversation session Tuesday morning. Many people came to ask questions and make their points known to the city manager and the two city councilors who attended. Bob Palermini photo
July 25, 2023

City councilors, manager, answer questions about homeless shelter, emergency evacuation routes, deer and more in first of three informal get-togethers

By Damian Mann for

At times testy, at times emotional, the first of three “Coffee and Conversations” on Tuesday provided Ashland city councilors and officials a chance to share a cup of Joe with local residents while discussing hot topics.

During the almost two-hour exchange Tuesday morning, the homeless voiced concern about their children being rousted from their sleep, and other local residents complained about a city overrun by pesky deer, the lack of affordable housing and insufficient emergency routes in a wildfire emergency.

Almost three dozen people showed up, with councilors Paula Hyatt and Dylan Bloom fielding questions, along with City Manager Joe Lessard.

“We have an excellent turnout,” Lessard said, after a small conference room exceeded its capacity in the Pony Espresso on Lithia Way, prompting everyone to retreat to a patio area.

City Councilor Dylan Bloom, center, answers a question at the first coffee and conversation session at Pony Espresso Tuesday. Bob Palermini photo

At the beginning of the Coffee and Conversations, Councilor Bloom said, “I’m happy to be here. I hope we can do more of these.”

Two other informal conversations will be held from 8:30 to 10 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 26, at Rogue Valley Roasting Company, 917 E. Main St., and on Tuesday, Nov. 14, at Case Coffee, 1255 Siskiyou Blvd.

At Tuesday’s get-together, residents said so-called road diets, which reduce the number of travel lanes on North Main Street/Highway 99 from four to two, create a traffic jam in an emergency.

“Overall, it’s a bottleneck in Ashland,” said Larry Graves. “What can we do to reduce the bottleneck in an emergency?”

City Councilor Paula Hyatt discusses the “road diet” on North Main Street/Highway 99 west of downtown. Bob Palermini photo

Councilor Hyatt said she shared some of the concerns, but she pointed out that emergency vehicles have been able to use the center turn lane in an emergency on Highway 99. However, other traffic calming decisions revolve around traffic safety and attempts to lessen traffic accidents in some areas, she said.

Lessard said the city is exploring with the Oregon Department of Transportation the possibility of installing more emergency ramps to access Interstate 5.

ODOT previously installed a southbound emergency on-ramp off North Mountain Avenue.

Lessard said the city is considering a potential northbound emergency ramp on the other side of I-5. He said other possibilities include ramps at a point somewhere between Mountain and Highway 66.

“We’re still shy of having adequate access to Interstate 5,” he said.

In a back-and-forth with homeless people who say they’re being badgered by police, the discussion turned heated.

“What about the people who can’t wait for housing?” pleaded Lacey McCoy, who said it’s difficult to find a place to sleep with her children because they are awakened in the middle of the night by police. “The unhoused are suffering. We are sick, we are injured. We are begging for a place to sleep.”

Lessard said the city is looking for a location to provide the kind of sleeping area that the homeless need.

“The city doesn’t own a piece of property that is appropriate for this use,” he said.

Homeless advocate Debbie Neisewander makes a case for more humane treatment of the unhoused in Ashland at the city’s first coffee and conversation session. Bob Palermini photo

Debbie Neisewander, a homeless advocate, said the instability for the local homeless in the city has been growing.

“We ran out of food last Thursday,” she said. “We can’t keep up with the houseless community.”

Neisewander said police have been citing more homeless recently, raising the stress on this vulnerable population.

She said more volunteers are needed, but what is really needed is more housing.

The homeless need secure storage lockers, a place to sleep and a place to prepare meals, she said.

Jamie Syken, a local resident responding to concerns expressed by the homeless, said, “What are you guys doing to do to meet us in the middle?”

Councilor Hyatt said she appreciated everyone’s comments, but tried to head off a potential argument and urged people not to talk over each other.

“I don’t want to raise the temperature,” she said.

Syken also raised concerns about what he viewed as inaction on the part of city officials about making good on damage to Tish Way’s house, which had a city sewer backup last year that has left her struggling to find a place to live.

Tish Way, whose home was flooded with sewerage, argues with city manager Joe Lessard at the city’s first coffee and conversation session. Bob Palermini photo

“This has happened to multiple houses in Ashland,” Syken said.

Way, whose home is across the street from Ashland Coop, said a report on her house by the city is currently being redacted.

“Why would anything need redacting,” she wondered.

She also wondered why councilors haven’t responded to her concerns.

Lessard said the city is not liable for the damages to Way’s home, that it was an issue with the sewer lines on her side of the property.

Hyatt said the council has been paying close attention to Way’s concerns.

“It’s not that the council isn’t listening,” she said.

After Hyatt was interrupted during one exchange, she said, “Let me finish.”

Ashland City Manager Joe Lessard listens to a citizen’s question at the first coffee and conversation session at Pony Espresso Tuesday. Bob Palermini photo

The city, in attempt to soften the blow of housing affordability in Ashland, is looking at a grant program that would help with child care costs to help attract more families.

“Child care in Ashland is becoming a crisis,” Lessard said.

He said the high cost of land locally is one of the reasons why the city struggles to have sufficient affordable housing.

“I don’t know of any city that doesn’t have a problem with affordable housing,” Lessard said.

Other residents raised concern about the emergency alert system, which sends alerts that can be confusing for the elderly to navigate.

Still others complained about aggressive deer, wondering why they aren’t shot or given birth control.

“I share your concern,” Hyatt said. But she pointed out that discharging a firearm in the city is a violation and so is feeding the deer. She said giving the deer birth control is a very pricey option.

Councilors and Lessard continued to speak with residents after the town hall was over to address their concerns one-on-one.

Reach freelance writer Damian Mann at

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Bert Etling

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