Ashland Parks and Recreation Commissioner Rich Rosenthal, Ashland Homelessness Steering Committee and Ashland Housing Commission member Regina Ayars and attorney Bruce Harrell are vying to capture the Ashland City Council seat being vacated by Russ Silbiger, who is not seeking re-election.
The three candidates offer competing views on how to address challenges facing Ashland.
Ayars: Affordable housing. Families cannot afford to live in Ashland. More seniors are living alone and students live in illegal units with minimal services. The city has the ability to set policy by changing land-use ordinances that can encourage more affordable housing; reduce minimum lot sizes to allow for smaller houses; and restrict single-family homes from being built in multifamily zones. Over half of the employees of Ashland's major employers cannot afford housing in Ashland. That means that they work here but don't live here, send their children to our schools or spend their money here.
Harrell: My top priority is building our self-sufficiency in food, water and energy, using economic incentives and fiscal responsibility to recover community prosperity and a healthy city government. Human overpopulation, climate change and dwindling resources have continued for decades. Ashland city government says we will not have enough water by 2018. Transportation cost will continue driving up the cost of food. Energy costs rise far faster than inflation, and it will only continue getting worse. Living in denial is not the answer. If we don't act now, we will be unable to preserve our quality of life.
Rosenthal: My top priority is to protect and enhance Ashland's quality of life in a far-sighted and strategic manner that keeps Ashland on the cutting edge of small-town America. By investing in our strengths and by improving civic infrastructure in a progressive manner, city government helps create or sustain economic opportunities for current and future generations.
What should be done about Ashland's homelessness issue?
Ayars: I support a day center for the homeless and near homeless. I think the city should provide seed money for the first year or two of operation. It should be managed by a nonprofit agency which would apply for grants and fundraise for the continued operation of the center. Social services agencies that are headquartered in Medford need to be invited to do outreach at the day center: Addictions Recovery Center, OnTrack Inc., ACCESS Inc. and others. The city could work with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to create a busking program to support street entertainers, many of whom are homeless.
Harrell: Ashland doesn't have a homeless problem. Homelessness is a national problem and needs the resources and economies of scale that only our state and federal governments can deliver. A tiny town like Ashland can do no more than become a magnet to attract more homeless, and if we bleed our limited resources trying to fix a national problem, we will be harming all of us in the end. Further, addressing homelessness is a matter of personal responsibility. Dozens of local organizations and literally thousands of neighbors have been doing far, far more than pro-homeless City Council candidates.
Rosenthal: City government must not enact policies that roll out the welcome mat to itinerants. City government can't solve the homeless issue on its own, but it can be an influential partner with social service providers that help willing Ashland residents get back on their feet or help get the unwilling on a productive path. I support the concept of a homeless resource center operated by a non-profit organization at a location with the highest likelihood of success (not at The Grove).
What should the council do to help strengthen the economy?
Ayars: Implement the Economic Development Strategy plan. We need to attract new non-tourism businesses and work to retain existing businesses. The city can set policy that will make it easier for small business to get started, expand and grow. Ashland has the reputation for having complicated permitting procedures which can deter companies from attempting to start the process. Policies can be put into place that can streamline that process. Three enterprise zones have been authorized which can offer tax incentives to businesses making capital improvements and who are willing to make commitments on higher salaries and increasing the number of employees.
Harrell: Increase downtown parking, restore free public transportation, end the "road diet" and other unnecessary capital improvement projects, hire additional Ashland patrol officers, build an Ashland jail to end the county jail's immediate release problem with Ashland miscreants, utilize e-commerce zone developments to bring higher-paying employers, increase incentives for installing solar electric and water heating in homes and businesses, support Mt. Ashland Ski Resort expansion and other year-round events and attractions, support Artisan Market relocation, first-come-first-serve signups for Plaza performers, raising chickens and other local food production efforts, and support community development grants.
Rosenthal: The council should be laser-focused on properly funding and implementing its recently adopted Economic Development Strategy. This comprehensive document outlines dozens of strategies that help diversify the community's economic base, create new, family-wage jobs and leverage strengths of the tourism industry. Without adequate staff and fiscal resources, the plan won't bear fruit.
Rosenthal, 41, says he decided to run because the Ashland City Council needs good people who are fiscally responsible, pragmatic thinkers.
"That's who I am. Ashland for me is a special place to live and raise a family. I think I'll retire here. I want it to be as good for my son and future generations as it has been for me," he says.
He says he has gained valuable experience about how government works during his time as an elected Ashland Parks and Recreation commissioner.
Rosenthal is in the middle of his third term on that commission and would resign if elected to the City Council.
He also works as the recreation superintendent for the Medford Parks and Recreation Department.
Rosenthal says his top priority would be to carry out an economic development plan recently adopted by the City Council. That would help bring more family-wage jobs to town, he says.
"It's a fabulous document that outlines a variety of strategies. A lot of smart people, both inside and outside government, worked on it," he says. "The City Council needs to focus on implementing it."
Rosenthal says he wants the city government to be fiscally responsible, but not to make Draconian cuts.
"For me, it's far more strategic. There's a difference between those who want to cut government and those who want to invest," he says. "It's about making smart investments to move the community forward."
He says he supports a strong parks system, among other investments to preserve the quality of life in Ashland.
Rosenthal says the city has been managed well and has avoided mass layoffs and budget cuts experienced by other municipalities during the last several years.
He believes all the city's departments should go through a "green audit" through the city's green business program. The parks department went through the process, which led to safer, more efficient and more environmentally friendly practices, he says.
"There will be tremendous savings in efficiency in the long run," Rosenthal says.
Rosenthal says he is against a proposal to use The Grove, a city building used for community classes and events, as a center to serve homeless and at-risk youth and for a school for juvenile offenders.
He supports a plan for the city to help fund a homelessness services day center, but isn't necessarily in support of current plans to give $100,000 in subsidies over two years to help fund a center, which would be run by a nonprofit organization.
Rosenthal says he would prefer waiving utility fees for a center and letting a nonprofit group apply for existing city social services grants.
Ayars, 65, says she decided to run for office to help change the makeup of the current City Council.
"I have been discouraged by our council over the last two years," she says. "I don't think they are reflecting the true values of the broader Ashland community. I don't like the alarming uniformity of thought."
Ayars says there are too many 5-1 votes on the six-member City Council. She says that is a sign councilors aren't working hard enough to find innovative solutions to problems.
Ayars says the most significant issue is the need for more affordable housing in Ashland. She says that includes affordable homes for middle-class families, not just subsidized housing for low-income people.
Households need to make $75,000 per year to buy a median-value home in Ashland, which means most families with children cannot afford to live in town, she says.
People who work in Ashland have to drive in from outlying towns, which worsens traffic congestion, Ayars says.
The Ashland School District has seen falling enrollment for years, leading to the closure of two elementary schools in the past decade, she says.
On the flip side of making Ashland more affordable, Ayars says the city needs to encourage businesses that pay family-wage jobs to relocate to Ashland.
She says the town needs to diversify and be less reliant on tourism, which generally provides low-paying service and retail jobs.
"I come from the high-tech industry. We need to get software companies here," says Ayars, who is retired from a career in marketing, management and engineering support in the high-tech sector.
She says the Ashland planning process could be streamlined to make it easier for the building industry.
As a member of the Ashland Homelessness Steering Committee and a volunteer at the Uncle Food's Diner free meal program, Ayars says she is knowledgeable about the complex problem of homelessness.
She attributes most of the bad behavior occurring downtown to transients who come into Ashland off the Interstate 5 corridor every year to make money off tourists.
Ayars says Ashland's resident homeless are less to blame.
She is against a policy adopted by the City Council to exclude people from the downtown who get three citations, saying it takes too long to work to impact transients.
She supports a homeless youth center at The Grove, as well as a separate adult homelessness center at a different location.
Ayars says it's more important to serve at-risk youths at The Grove than the middle-class adults who take part in classes and events there.
"Youth are in jeopardy of becoming full-time homeless people. Once they are entrenched, it's very hard for them to get out," she says.
Harrell, a 58-year-old attorney, says preparing for climate change is his top priority.
"We have to get ready for climate change. Neither of my two opponents have named that as their top priority," Harrell says.
He says Ashland needs to become more self-sufficient when it comes to food, energy and water.
He says a breakdown in the country's transportation system could lead to mass starvation. Additionally, many key agricultural areas in the country are at risk from climate change.
Food and energy prices will continue to rise, and Ashland doesn't have enough water from Ashland Creek to meet future needs, he says.
Harrell supports letting people and businesses grow food on unused city-owned land. As a successful example, he pointed to Standing Stone Brewing Co.'s use of city land for a farming operation across Interstate 5 from town.
He says Ashland should connect to Medford's water supply and finish the Talent-Ashland-Phoenix water intertie project. The Medford water should be used for regular use in addition to Ashland water, he says.
Plans now call for only tying into the waterline to get Medford water for emergency use. Ashland would build a second water treatment plant in town and continue to rely mainly on Ashland Creek and Talent Irrigation District water.
Harrell says the city should give property tax rebates and reduce planning fees to encourage people and businesses to install solar systems.
On the fiscal front, Harrell says he would like to rein in public employee pay, health insurance benefits and retirement benefits.
The city should also eliminate spending in a number of areas, he says.
"No new parks, no new affordable housing units, and no aid for the homeless except free bus passes," Harrell says.
Homeless people could use the bus passes to reach services in Medford, he says.
Harrell says he would like to see more downtown parking and he opposes a "road diet" on North Main Street that is reducing four car lanes to two lanes with a center turn lane.
By saving money on unnecessary spending, Harrell says the city wouldn't have to keep raising taxes and fees.
"The community would end up being a lot more stable. It would save community jobs and Ashland would be more affordable to live in," he says. "By steadily increasing taxes and fees, I would say the Ashland city government is making Ashland less affordable than anyone."
Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or email@example.com.