Graham, Fate differ on Ashland status quo
By Stephen Floyd, Ashland.news
The Ashland City Council race between incumbent Tonya Graham and challenger Joy Fate has been one of status quo versus course correction.
Graham, a one-term councilor elected in 2018 who has championed climate change reform, said she believes the city has become more resilient in the face of wildfires and COVID-19, and she wants voters to give her another term to continue being part of that resiliency.
“The last four years have been very challenging,” said Graham. “… I’m looking to continue that work and I’d be honored to serve on the council.”
Fate, a retired local media producer, said the city has made poor decisions with taxes, utility rates and planning fees, and if elected she would reverse what she sees as undue financial burdens on the people and businesses of Ashland.
“I think we need to listen to voices that don’t always have an opportunity to be heard, so I’m here to represent a lot of those voices,” said Fate.
Both candidates expressed their views during a forum moderated and organized by the Ashland Chamber of Commerce. The candidates are on the Nov. 8 ballot for Council Position 2. Ballots were due to be mailed out Wednesday, Oct. 19.
When asked what they see as the biggest issues facing Ashland, both said the cost of living and high housing prices need to be addressed, but with different priorities for both.
Graham described a connection between poverty and climate change, saying those most vulnerable among us are also those who take the brunt of climate change’s impact. She noted the many homeless people who were displaced by the Almea Fire in 2020. She said wildfires, drought and other factors have forced Ashland to adapt and change, and as the city re-asserts who it wants to be, there must be room for people who are struggling to have opportunities in town.
“Our low-income people should be able to have a good life in Ashland. They shouldn’t be strapped constantly,” said Graham. “…We need to actively work to make sure how our community can have our community members living in it.”
Fate agreed Ashland must be resilient and housing must be affordable, but said high real estate costs are only part of the picture. She said high taxes and utility fees have contributed to the problem and, if elected to the council, she would help the city chart a more fiscally responsible course.
“City government must begin to operate with fiduciary responsibility,” said Fate. When asked how she would prioritize and fund the rollback of taxes and fees, Fate said she didn’t “necessarily know exact ways that I would incentivize them at the moment,” but said such high costs to engage with government were “penalizing” local businesses and artists.
“It’s very upsetting to me that several of the poor retail establishments have left,” she said. “It’s changing the face of our downtown and I’d like to encourage businesses.”
Graham justified increases in fees and said, as costs to do business have gone up recently, utility rates and other fees have had to keep pace to continue providing city services.
“It’s not because people on the council or the city can’t keep themselves from spending, but there are costs that increase year over year,” said Graham.
To fund her priorities, Graham said the city should consider pursuing grants or loans that will help homeowners reduce wildfire risks on their properties. She said the city already has access to a $3 million Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant for this kind of work, but this will impact only the most vulnerable homes in Ashland and not all residences that are at risk.
“How might we work with local banking institutions to get people low-income loans or even grants to do work around the house?” she asked.
Candidates were then asked about recent staffing shortfalls at City Hall, with around 50 employees leaving Ashland during the last year. Graham said this was something voters should “absolutely” worry about, but noted the “Great Resignation” has taken its toll on municipalities elsewhere.
“Not all of what we’re looking at here is outside the norm of what’s happening in the larger world,” said Graham.
She also said she believed this exodus of city workers was linked to what she called a “negative atmosphere” in some city departments, saying there have been instances of department heads criticizing employees openly on social media, and that small groups of problematic employees and public officials have created a situation that is difficult for the larger workforce.
“We have really good people who work for us, and fortunately a lot of them have stayed in spite of this very difficult atmosphere that we have,” said Graham.
Fate disagreed flatly with this assessment and said she does not see the “negativity” Graham described. Fate said employees quit for “a whole host of reasons” and she could not speculate as to why this was happening in Ashland.
“I don’t think it has to do with some ‘Great Resignation’ or because they’re being treated poorly,” said Fate. “Our city staff works very hard and they’re competent people and they do a wonderful job.”
When asked how they plan to collaborate with community partners, both candidates said they see opportunities to help Ashland diversify its economy and attract visitors to the natural beauty in and around town, and opportunities for business growth.
“I think expanding our tourism and focusing perhaps on bringing in some light manufacturing, some tech companies is all important in growing Ashland,” said Fate.
Graham also cited a recent study by the chamber that detailed opportunities for Ashland to diversify its economy and said this provided a valuable framework for community collaboration. She said one opportunity for the city was improving outreach with businesses and helping guide them through permitting and development regulations.
“We are much stronger when we have that partnership,” she said.