Who’s the boss? Council again discusses Parks oversight, considers clarifications

The Ashland City Council during its business meeting Tuesday, Oct. 18.
October 20, 2022

A conversation gone ‘sideways’ leads to tabling proposed resolution, leaving issues for voters to decide Nov. 8

By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news

After overwhelming pushback from community members and Parks and Recreation Commissioners, Ashland City Councilors voted unanimously Tuesday evening to table a proposed resolution that would’ve given City Manager Joe Lessard full oversight of parks employees before the upcoming election.

The vote came about following a work session held on Monday and a discussion sparked by a conversation between Councilors Shaun Moran and Paula Hyatt. The conversation was about new information Moran obtained about the authority of the City Council in determining the direction of parks oversight. Both councilors wanted to bring the information before the public in the spirit of transparency before a public vote was taken Nov. 8, where Measure 15-210, an amendment to the city charter, remains on the ballot.

Ashland City Councilor Shaun Moran speaks during the council’s business meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 18.

The “new information” is made up mostly of a pair of memorandums of understanding between the city and Parks and a pair of city resolutions, all from the 2012-2014 time period, as detailed in the 38-page staff report for Tuesday’s agenda item.

“What we have here is a desire to share information that has gone sideways, and that’s OK, because this is part of the democratic process,”  Hyatt said.

Part of that democratic process was hearing directly from community residents in the public comment portion of the meeting about the proposed resolution.

Speaking during public comment, Ashland Parks Foundation Secretary Jeff Mangin called the draft resolution a “direct slap in the face” of every registered voter in Ashland.

Ashland City Councilor Paula Hyatt speaks during the council’s business meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 18.

“It is offensive and an enormous mistake,” Mangin said.

He was the first to call for tabling the resolution, in addition to Parks & Recreation Commissioner Julian Bell. APRC Commissioner Leslie Eldridge also shared her thoughts on the resolution.

“I’m here today to ask you to reconsider this poorly conceived resolution dealing with the APRC roles and responsibilities,” Eldridge said. “The resolution in front of councilors today would attempt to erase over a decade of documented partnership between APRC and the City Council.”

Eldridge said the proposed resolution 2022-30 would have City Council back out of two historical city council resolutions and two past memorandums of understanding between APRC and City Council. 

“Furthermore, it would utterly transform the organization and management, all essentially with no involvement whatsoever from the public or Parks and Recreation Commission,” Eldridge said.

“Please, wait for the people to vote and express their views,” she added. “I request that the council meet with APRC on equal ground and engage in a mutually respectful discussion to move forward. Please don’t do anything to circumvent the democratic process.”

Lessard said the draft resolution was placed on the agenda before the election to showcase that the City Council has “ a certain level of discretion” when it comes to the management of parks employees.

He added that the language used in the proposed resolution mimics the language used in a memorandum of understanding from Oct. 19, 2014.

Ashland City Councilor Tonya Graham speaks during the council’s business meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 18.

Councilor Tonya Graham said she was “stunned” to see the item in the packet and had questions about the resolution’s origins.

“I recognize that it’s important to look at this in the space of our new form of government but this is not how we should be doing this conversation,” Graham said. “It does in fact betray the voters in the question that we are in the process of asking them about.”

She then asked fellow councilors, “Where did this resolution come from?”

‘Where did this resolution come from?’

Hyatt and Moran weighed in on how the draft resolution came before the group.

“The initial request was never for a full-on resolution,” Hyatt said. “As this has unfolded with (Measure) 15-210, we found that there are two ways to affect this change, the first being the vote, which we have put forward so that we can hear from the people and that is what the council went forward with back in the August timeframe when we had to file by a certain date.”

Hyatt said that councilors, in moving the measure to the ballot, acted at the time to the best of their abilities and knowledge of the situation but have since learned more.

“That additional information said, council, the same question that you have put to the people, if you start discussing these documents, it’s going to sound as if, yes you got their vote and now you’re discussing it all over again and potentially undercutting that vote,” Hyatt said.

Hyatt emphasized the importance of the conversation being shared by councilors and with Parks to continue the conversation. Getting as much information before the voters cast their votes was her goal.

“It’s important that they know this is out there ahead of time,” Hyatt said. 

“I’m not going to slide something in and not say to this community, ‘ladies and gentlemen, this is out there.’ It’s disingenuous and it’s not how I operate.”

Hyatt said that through the conversation, she is confident that the community is aware that there is a dual path on the issue — That council can make the decision on its own or with the input from the community through a vote.

Moran said up until Friday of last week, he hadn’t seen the information displayed in a concise manner.  

“I honestly believe if I had the information then that I have now, I would’ve never voted to put it on the ballot,” Moran said.

Moran said his and Hyatt’s initial conversation surrounding the new-to-them information was to “uncork” all the complexities around this discussion: two memorandums of understandings, two resolutions and a handful of code changes.

“Our job is to ask those questions to understand the potential implication of that information,” he said. “It has to go to the citizens and that’s only fair … So that’s kind of the jumbled mess we find ourselves in but I want to apologize … this was part of our process.”

Concept of a parks district raised

Hyatt also shared that she believes the city isn’t asking the public the right question through 

Measure 15-210, though, which was placed on the upcoming ballot over the summer to further define oversight by the city manager.

“I do not think 15-210 is the right question,” Hyatt said. 

Hyatt believes the city should be asking the community if Ashlanders want a Parks District.

“Is that your true wish, and if it is, then the council needs to come together as a body and meet the wants and needs of the people,” Hyatt said. “Now there’s a lot there to figure out, namely, how’s it going to be funded, but it’s a conversation worth having and I question if we’re having the right conversation. But you know, we can’t get to these hard questions and conversations if we don’t talk.

Hyatt acknowledges that the general impression of the council is that the body needs to communicate better. She believed that talking about the issue with colleagues and listening to Parks & Recreation Commissioners request to table the proposed resolution is part of fostering needed communication.

Ashland Parks & Recreation Commissioners Leslie Eldridge and Julian Bell during the council’s business meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 18.

Parks and Recreation Commissioner Julian Bell agreed with Hyatt’s idea to discuss the creation of a Parks District, especially because it might “avoid these conflicts” and provide a clearer management structure.

“Honestly, we ought to be working together,” Bell said. “We are definitely after the same goals.

“Particularly, if we were turned into a district, we could certainly pay our own insurance costs as well.”

Mayor shares background on complex relationship with parks

Mayor Julie Akins brought up the more than one-third increase in insurance rates as an integral part of the overall conversation moving forward.

Ashland Mayor Julie Akins during the council’s business meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 18.

“The thorny issue is about insurance,” Akins said. “It has to be resolved some kind of way because our insurance rates have increased by 36%.”

The city’s deductible was once capped at $125,000 but now increases by $100,000 every time there is a claim, she said.

“So there’s a legitimate financial issue which is what brought this whole thing to the table, way back in the day when Council first started talking about it,” Akins said.  “It’s because there are two separate governing bodies, it creates that increased liability. So somewhere along the line … we have to deal with that in a responsible, fiduciary way.”

In a Sept. 15 memo released by McGeary, he details how the city’s insurance carrier, City/County Insurance Services (CIS) is required to add $100,000 liability insurance deductible per occurrence for employment related claims under the city’s property and casualty insurance policy. 

“Previously, the insurance deductible was a total aggregate of $125,000 a year for all City claims (see attached July 1, 2022, Memo on the Property and Casualty Insurance Premium Increase),” the statement reads. “This liability deductible change has been identified by CIS as necessary so long as Park and Recreation operations retains its autonomy from City oversight but is not an actual separate legal entity. CIS views this as an additional risk and liability for coverage. CIS must be prepared to defend both the City Council and the Park Commission with separate legal counsel related to Park and Recreation Department employment claims. This change raises the possibility of increased City cost for the added deductible obligation for each City employment related claim.”

A July 1 memo released by the city shared a more than $200,000 increase in premium rates ($809,568) in 2021-22 versus ($1,101,697) in 2022-23.  

The following factors were listed as impacting the increase:

  • The number of liability claims occurring since 2016.
  • The property schedule reflects a 10% increase due to increased valuation of City
    property.
  • An additional high risk exposure charge for emergency shelter operations and liquor sales at the golf course.
  • The transition from self-insurance for workman’s compensation insurance to utilization of Savings Association Insurance Fund (SAIF) (this transition will see a decrease of spending in other areas to offset, as well as reduced risk and liability for the city).
  • An increase in annual workers compensation payroll.
Acting city attorney advises council to weigh rights vs. potential impacts

During Monday’s work session, Acting City Attorney Doug McGeary further explained the nuances of the complex relationship between the Parks & Recreation Commission and the city.

“The commission doesn’t have any other rights than what the city gives it,” McGeary said, noting they are not separate entities.

Ashland City Manager Joe Lessard and interim City Attorney Doug McGeary during the Oct. 18 business meeting.

“I guess it’s a branch,” he added. “It’s not distinct. It doesn’t have its own powers to be able to sue anyone or do anything separately from what the city does. It is part and parcel of the city but it just happens to be a commission.”

McGeary specifically said another point brought up is to look at the historical relationship between parks and the city. He also noted there has since been a charter change that has impacted that relationship.

In 2020, Ashland voters changed to move from a city administrator-mayor form of government to oversight by a city manager.

“The fact is, when the citizens made that change, whether they intended it or not, that’s what happened,” he said. 

“It’s in the city’s best interest for the city to do whatever it needs to do in order to make that relationship work better, then that’s what you’re allowed to do, under the ordinances.”

McGeary said that if the city were to withdraw from current memorandums of understanding (MOUs) it has with the Parks Commission regarding the current structure for parks oversight, the city would still be overseeing its employees.

“It would be similar to the Planning Department working with the Planning Commission to get the Planning Commission’s work done,” McGeary said. “You would still assign your employees the same way.

“The (city) manager would have control over city operations, and that would include those things that are happening with the parks with respect to employees or employees that are assigned to parks,” he added.

McGeary said that the City Council in its authority may review MOUs, ordinances, and understandings in order to make a change so Lessard has authority over parks employees.

He also offered his own thoughts on the matter.

“That being said, no one’s necessarily asked my advice,” McGeary said. “I mean, you have a right to do a lot of things. Like I say to people and my clients, you have a right to walk across the street at rush hour … I wouldn’t suggest it or I wouldn’t recommend that you do that.

“I would think that from a standpoint of the historical nature of what’s going on, what has happened, you would try to keep as close as you could to that while at the same time, making adjustments, so that your city can best operate in a way that’s the most efficient, most logical and at the same time, pleases the most people, the most you can,” he added.

More time sought for voter input

Councilors Stefani Seffinger, who served on the Parks & Recreation Commission, who opposed the draft resolution, called it “precipitous” during Monday’s work session discussion.

“I realize that the Parks Commission is elected and an elected body should have some autonomy in terms of what the people want the Commission to be like and do,” Seffinger said. “Historically that’s how it’s functioned in Ashland for a long time, with citizens often giving the highest recommendations for services to parks.”

Seffinger, whose term expires this year and who is not seeking re-election, said councilors need to at some point revisit the charter for a number of reasons to clarify issues that may have changed over time.

“I don’t think this is the time,” Seffinger said. “I think we need to hear what the people have to say first. 

“As a citizen, I’d feel undercut if I wasn’t able to have my vote mean anything.”

She made the motion to table the resolution on Tuesday, with Hyatt seconding it.

Following the unanimous vote to table the resolution, Akins said: “Further discussion to come, I am quite certain.”

Councilor Stephen Jensen was not present at the meeting on Tuesday.

Reach Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at hollyd@ashland.news.

Oct. 24 update: APRC Commissioner Leslie Eldridge’s first name added in body of story, and Ashland Parks Foundation Secretary Jeff Mangin’s first name and title.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

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

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