Measure 15-210 would clarify chain of command, while 15-211 would re-allocate food and beverage tax funding
By Stephen Floyd, Ashland.news
Two city ballot measures will determine how the Ashland Parks and Recreation Department (APRD) is managed and funded during the Nov. 8 election.
Measure 15-210 would reorganize the power structure of the department and place all personnel decisions under the city manager’s office, rather than the Ashland Parks and Recreation Commission (APRC).
Measure 15-211 would re-assign a significant portion of Ashland’s food and beverage tax, which is currently earmarked for parks and roads but would become part of the general fund if the measure passed.
These measures come amid the political backdrop of a new city manager consolidating the authority of his office, and allegations of sexism and discrimination within the parks department.
Attempts to reorganize APRD began after City Manager Joe Lessard was hired in 2021, after Ashland transitioned to a city manager form of government on Jan. 1 of that year. In this style of government, a city manager is the appointed chief executive of the city rather than the mayor, while the mayor remains the head of the city’s legislative body.
Lessard has taken issue with a unique caveat of Ashland’s city charter, which allows an elected commission of five individuals to operate APRD and make personnel decisions. Lessard has argued these responsibilities typically fall to a city manager, and the unusual exception of APRC has created legal and administrative ambiguities.
To eliminate questions of authority and bring APRD in line with city administrations elsewhere, Lessard put forward Measure 15-210 before the Ashland City Council. The measure would not dissolve APRC, but would grant Lessard sole authority to appoint, supervise and dismiss city employees, including those within APRD.
Simultaneous to this, Lessard encouraged the council to place Measure 15-211 on the ballot, which would reassign 73 percent of the food and beverage tax from streets and parks to the city’s general fund. The funds remaining would remain uncharged, with 25 percent dedicated to APRD and 2 percent to administration of the tax.
The city said this change would help cover budget shortfalls experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. While the 73 percent in question would no longer be dedicated to roads and parks, the general fund would be still able to support road and park projects if the funds were needed, said the city.
Both measures have generated strong pushback.
APRC commissioners Jim Bachman and Rick Landt, who are on the ballot for new terms, have come out strongly against the measures, saying they threaten the independence of a department that has spearheaded significant city improvements. Other current and former city officials, including former Mayor Cathy Shaw, have lambasted the measures as a power grab that would destabilize a 110-year city institution that has done much to benefit Ashland.
But APRC has been criticized itself for being unable to rein in alleged harassment and misogyny that Laura Chancellor, former superintendent of Oak Knoll Golf Course, said led to her resignation in June. Chancellor sued APRD and the city in February for workplace discrimination and said weak oversight of the department has created a toxic work environment and victimized herself and several other women.
Even if the measures fail, there may still be a path for Lessard to consolidate authority. On Oct. 18, the Ashland City Council discussed the potential of passing a resolution that would grant the city manager’s office full oversight of APRD employees, though the resolution was tabled in light of the coming election.
The rationale behind the resolution is the fact that the city charter does not explicitly assign authority of ARPD employees to APRC, and that authority has been granted to commissioners by the council over the years through various resolutions, ordinances and memoranda. Lessard argued the council retains the authority to amend or void these agreements with APRC and eliminate administrative ambiguity by granting the city manager full oversight.
But while consolidation may be one answer to the question of APRD oversight, councilors also discussed a potential parks district during the Oct. 18 meeting. Creating the district would require approval from voters and would likely include a new property tax, but having a legal entity separate from the city would eliminate ambiguity over whether or not APRC ought to be in charge when Ashland voters assigned the city’s personnel management to a city manager in 2020.