Falkenstein, Hansen emphasize planning ahead
By Stephen Floyd, Ashland.news
Two candidates active in community engagement are seeking their first term in elected office, vying for the position held by outgoing Ashland City Councilor Stephen Jensen.
Jim Falkenstein and Eric Hansen are on the Nov. 8 ballot for Council Position 6. They detailed their views during a candidate forum in September organized and hosted by the Ashland Chamber of Commerce.
Falkenstein, a digital media instructor with Southern Oregon University and the host of “Ashland 5 Minute Meeting,” a video blog summarizing council meeting highlights, said he would take his ability to explain complex information and use it to the benefit of voters, if elected.
“What I like to do, I like to find information, condense it, explain it to other people in town, and I hope to do that as your councilor,” he said.
Hansen, a member of the chamber board and CEO of solar panel firm True South Solar, said his experience with the chamber and as an entrepreneur have helped him develop skills that would help him serve well, if elected.
“I think I’m going to be a good councillor because of these skills and the long-term perspective that we have,” said Hansen.
When asked what they believe are the most important issues facing the city, each candidate took different directions about the internal and external influences of the city.
Hansen said the city has a pressing need to address human resources issues, saying employees have been unable to provide the services and reassurances citizens need. He said there is a certain “dread and fear” within city staff regarding department leadership, and once these obstacles are removed the situation will improve.
“When we re-embrace the city and the workers, I think we’re going to be able to move mountains again,” said Hansen.
He also said housing affordability was a significant concern for Ashland and should be a focus of efforts to strengthen the city.
Falkenstein agreed that housing was a large obstacle, including housing that is affordable for blue-collar workers. He said when people can afford to live in the city where they work, it helps build a cohesive community.
“If the person you see at the shop you then also see at the dog park later in the day, you become friends and then you connect and you create another community,” said Falkenstein.
He also said the city should invest in its water system and consider the importance of being independent, particularly during drought conditions. He said expanding capacity, such as the reservoir, will help the city remain water-independent.
When asked how they would prioritize and fund their policy goals, Falkenstein said the city needs to have projects that are funding-ready in order to take advantage of grants and loans set aside for public works.
“If we have a plan ready to go, then when monies become available we can be in line for those kinds of projects,” he said.
Hansen said he sees opportunities for Ashland to pursue solar power grants, as well as improvements to the water treatment plant. He also returned to the issue of city staffing and said Ashland should invest in its employees so they know they are valued and taken care of, particularly in light of the stresses of the staffing shortage.
“They need to know that we’re going to stand behind them and make sure that they’re adequately taken care of,” said Hansen. “Right now it’s just staff working their butts off overtime to deliver.”
When candidates were asked to comment more fully on the loss of 50 city employees during the last year, Hansen cited his experience running a business during the COVID-19 pandemic. He said 2020 hit True South Solar ‘like a meteor” and said, when expenses suddenly outpace revenue, the best response is to start planning ahead with the information available.
“After a shakeup, where your budget doesn’t meet actuals, you plan for the next budget and you make smart decisions, and that’s what I do, I make smart decisions based on data,” he said.
Hansen said, though the city is recovering from a crisis, it is not down for the count and he looks forward to working with the mayor and other officials to chart a path forward, including making sure the right person is leading the human resources department.
Falkenstein said citizens shouldn’t be worried about the future of Ashland and, even though the pandemic and climate change have impacted the job market, he sees opportunities to recover. He said some employees likely left due to the “Great Resignation,” while others may have departed due to friction with department heads. He said, once those management problems are resolved, the city will be able to rebuild its staff.
“We’ve hit a bad patch,” said Falkenstein. “The future looks bright.”
When asked how they would collaborate with community groups, such as the chamber, Falkenstein said the council needs to address “jousting and acrimony” between the city and community. He said the city should become proactively involved in the challenges affecting local businesses, and could even reach out to social media influencers who can help promote the city and its businesses.
“It doesn’t take much conversation as long as you start the conversation,” said Falkenstein.
Hansen cited a recent economic diversity report conducted by the chamber and ECONorthwest, which examined the steps Ashland can take to diversity and strengthen its economy. Hansen said the city should take to heart the results of the study, including that Ashland has opportunities to invest in conventional attractions like performing arts and other sectors such as ecotourism.
Hansen said the goal is not just promoting different sectors, but building synergies between them so visitors go home and tell their friends, “Have you been to Ashland? It’s cooler than it was last time.”