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Honor the city charter: Fight for parks funds

 Posted: 2:00 AM May 18, 2013

Does our city charter matter? And do we have a moral imperative to honor the wishes of our ancestors? These are the core questions I ask Ashlanders to contemplate as we collectively consider whether we should end a century of parks independence and grab its money. Our parks commissioners voted unanimously to reject this awful proposal. All of us who love our parks, who hike our city's trails, who take our dogs for walks at parks, or who grow food in community gardens thank and support our parks commissioners for their courage in taking this stand.

What is most dispiriting about this proposed money-grab by those with positions of influence who should know better is how clearly it violates the trust we should be maintaining to those previous citizens who in the early 20th century had a vision, fought for, and ultimately succeeded in protecting what we now call Lithia Park.

Maintenance of all our parks since then has been legally possible because of specific language in the charter, and along the way, what we might call "gentlemen's agreements" which now appear to be in jeopardy. So does our city charter matter anymore?

Here's the relevant verbatim language from the charter: "Article XIX, Section 3: Funding. The said Park Commission shall have control and management of all the lands here dedicated for park purposes and of all other lands that may hereafter be acquired by the City for such purposes. They shall have control and management of all park funds, whether the same is obtained by taxation, donation or otherwise, and shall expend the same judiciously for beautifying and improving the City's parks."

Pretty straightforward, eh? It appears, however, that we are now on a collision course — after more than a century of good will, public comity, and collective stewardship — with a minority who want to end this century of cooperation by grabbing parks' revenue to balance a bloated budget.

This raises my second question, do we current Ashland citizens have a moral imperative to honor the vision and good works of our ancestors? Will those who support this questionable idea of robbing Peter to pay Paul for "fiscal reasons" please explain why this doesn't defy our city charter and dishonor the expressed wishes of those who came before?

Lithia Park is a national treasure today because of wise action by ahead-of-their-time citizens who understood that a day would inevitably come when those who think life is primarily about the wallet would rationalize a scheme to sacrifice our parks first. They knew the best way to avoid this was to create independence in decision-making and revenue. So our charter created a Parks Commission with elected commissioners (the only city commission with elected members) and a separate, untouchable budget (thus the charter's legal, sanctioning language and other fiscal mechanisms which over time have kept the parks' budget separate).

You can give a name to something, you can call it a Citizens Budget Committee; you can elect a human and give him the role of mayor; you can sound the fiscal alarm like the boy crying wolf about the future of our city's finances; you can administer a city and ignore a history you might not respect while ringing the false bell of fiscal doom and gloom; and yes, you can permanently ruin Ashland's unique Parks Commission and Parks Department, which represent one of the most successful stories anywhere in the world of parks protection and conservation.

What you can't do is look all those ancestors in the eye — wherever it is they now dwell — and shake their hand and reassure them you have been faithful to them; you have kept their word; you have honored them by deed and bond. No, you will admit that you abdicated to the shouting of wallet-minders and allowed hyperbolic money concerns to drown out the morally correct impulses in your soul.

If this shameful idea succeeds and we somehow violate our city charter — that will indeed be an unhappy legacy of this council, this Citizens Budget Committee, this mayor, and this new city administrator — who collectively all seem too ready to take this unprecedented action and violate a century of collective, community cooperation and trust.

Finally, not being a newcomer, it appears this is all a done deal and a compromise has now been floated. No! The definition of compromise is that everyone relinquishes their values and views and accepts a weak, watered-down, half-way alternative that satisfies no one and achieves little success. Don't compromise, parks commissioners! You have the city charter's legal language as your foundation and you should stand on it and fight! You will have support, visible and invisible, from all Ashlanders, alive and dead, who will always love our parks.

Brian Holley lives in Ashland.

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