File photo | Daily TidingsCity Administrator Martha Bennett and Planning Director David Stalheim stand near the Croman site, shortly after Stalheim was hired in January. The site is a high priority project for the city.
There is a surprising consensus among city leaders regarding Ashland's Community Development Department. A lack of leadership at the top isn't a top concern on the priority list. After losing John MacLaughlin, who had been with Ashland's planning department for 19 years, followed by two failed recruitments &
highlighted by the premature departure of newly-hired director, David Stalheim &
everyone agrees the turnover in the top position of the most prestigious planning department in Southern Oregon isn't the worst problem it faces.
Consider an $800,000 shortfall, with revenues trending south. That's a surprising reality for city leaders.
"When I saw that number I thought it was a mistake," Councilor Russ Silbiger, who served on the finance committee before becoming a councilor, said. "I couldn't believe there was that much of a shortfall in revenue from community development.
"That's a scary number. I think we will have to tighten up in that department. We're not going to tax our way out of it. That's a tough one."
Ashland's Director of Administrative Services Lee Tuneberg said this loss is one of two financial concerns in the budget.
"Two issues that came up this last year in the budget were ambulance service and community development," Tuneburg said, "because we saw revenue stream changes in both of those. And those are both general fund activities and that causes a disconnect."
At this time of surprising financial crisis, the city council and the staff of the Community Development Department are not working together to find a direction. Instead, the few goals the council has issued are viewed as unattainable, and a conflict between one councilor and Stalheim nearly spilled over into a public meeting this summer. Stalheim has since resigned and some of the city staff are wondering if a replacement can be found.
A matter of influence
From virtually the moment Stalheim was hired, Councilor Cate Hartzell worried that members of the development community would successfully lobby for his support. Within six months of Stalheim's arrival, Hartzell made a request for his entire schedule, information concerning every phone call, e-mail and personal contacts (including any notes taken during conversations) encompassing a period of time from one month prior to Stalheim's official start to three months after.
"I'm astounded that request was made," Silbiger said. "I think it was inappropriate."
Councilor Eric Navickas agreed.
"I would not encourage any councilor to make those type of requests toward staff," Navickas said. "I think it does create a feeling of distrust. I wouldn't encourage that."
But Hartzell did not stop with the initial request. On June 27, nearly two weeks after she first contacted Bennett, Hartzell sent another e-mail expressing frustration with the lack of information being provided.
"I reiterate this request," Hartzell wrote. "If staff is unwilling to give it to me, I will have to figure out the technical pitfalls of submitting the request as a private citizen or advancing it as a council request. I may not get the last vote I need, but it will make public opinions that won't reflect confidence in the planning director."
Stalheim said he was aware of Hartzell's public records request, but said he did not wish to comment about it.
When asked about her knowledge of the reason Stalheim was leaving, and if she had expressed her concerns to him, Hartzell said she had not had an opportunity to talk with him.
But the public records request Hartzell made shows that she met with Stalheim in his office for one hour on March 16. Councilor Hardesty had met with him earlier the same day. Hardesty had also met with Stalheim previously on Jan. 23 for one hour. Former Planning Commissioner Colin Swales, who is generally considered a political ally of Hartzell, met with Stalheim immediately following Hardesty on the same day for one hour as well.
ABOUT THIS SERIES —
The resignation of Planning Director David Stalheim has increased the number of vacated city leadership positions to three. Coupled with on outpouring of criticism from residents over the council’s decision to undergo five months of professional training and counseling, public concern over the state of the city is high.
The Tidings conducted a two-week investigation into the workings of the council and its relationship to City Hall, presented here in four parts.
: Ashland’s dysfunctional council: A series of interviews with former and current city leaders suggests the council is failing to operate effectively as a group. City staff is overwhelmed with the agendas of some individual members of the council. Stress is high and decison-making is low.
Today: The resignation of David Stalheim is the tip of the iceberg for a planning department drifting far behind its revenue goals and swimming amid accusations of distrust and influence.
: As the Ashland Police Department’s problem broke into public view in a well-publicized clash between officers, their chief and the city, turnover was rampant and morale was down. But a healing change came quickly with a new leader.
: Several departments in the city face staffing and economic problems, including a frustrated fire department that has taken its appeal directly to voters and a two-person legal staff lacking a permanent leader.
Despite it all, the future does look promising as a new group of city leaders seeks to bring about lasting change.
Additionally, Stalheim said that he has met with Hartzell on a couple of separate occasions and has even dined with both Hartzell and Hardesty together.
As Hartzell's public information request shows, Stalheim's schedule was far more filled with meetings from Hartzell and her supporters, than meetings with developers. One city source estimated that Stalheim received more than 100 e-mails from Swales during his tenure in office.
The intense scrutiny of the planning department and its director is nothing new. The planning department has been a lightning rod of contention in the city over the past three years and perhaps the most significant battleground between developers and activists, along with members of the city council.
Stalheim's predecessor resigned under pressure shortly after the city council election of 2004, which gave Hartzell and her supporters more votes on the council. Many believed he was too pro-business, a charge now being raised about Stalheim.
Two pillars of potential
Aside from political oversight by the council and market forces impacting the city, former City Administrator Grimaldi explained the problems that threaten the revenue potential of community development.
"The Community Development Department works in two areas, one is long-range planning and the other is current planning. What you have to pay attention to is the current planning. That is a workload created by whatever walks in the door. So that really drives your work plan. If you think of things that walk in the door that take up staff time, as that activity increases your ability to get to long-range projects decreases. And that's exactly what was going on.
"The long-range planning was sacrificed for some of the current planning, and the current planning things took a long time to get through some of the issues. A lot of involvement. Involvement takes time."
City departments are all tightening their belts on a $91 million budget that represents deep cuts in a number of areas, including the fire department. With Community Development flailing, it becomes a drain on a city budget that doesn't have enough handouts to fill all the empty hands. That means every department will feel the cinch of the belt, including planning.
City Administrator Martha Bennett is also facing a unique situation in which longtime Public Works Director Paula Brown is set to leave by the end of the year, vacating the helm of that department at the same time Community Development is leaderless. The situation opens itself to creative restructuring.
"What I'm working on right now, and looking at the council to do, is look at that particular job and the organization of that department and try to figure out whether we need to restructure," Bennett said. "We need to make sure that whoever we hire to be the leader, the planner can be successful."
Stalheim said the city might struggle yet again in their search for a planning director.
"I think that it's going to be very difficult for the city perhaps to hire from outside," he said. "And I think that Martha and the mayor both are very creative and thinking about the challenge they've been presented and what are the opportunities to respond to that."
City councilors all agree that their goal for the planning department is to see it pay for itself through permit fees and building revenues. meeting economic sustainability goals, the department will be less of a drain on the general fund. That frees up monies for other areas of concern. Yet, despite having some of the best planning personnel in the state, development in Ashland is failing.
"Several years ago the council set a goal that the building division should be self-supporting, and planning at 75 percent," Stalheim said. "I think planning has been at about 15 to 20 percent and building is about 50 percent. Permit activity is down significantly and revenue is down significantly."
Add to that dismal prognosis the downward economic trend in the real estate market nationwide and the problem of lengthy processes that utilize the majority of staff resources to leap the numerous hurdles in Ashland's planning process, sometimes without success. Still, Stalheim had a plan of recovery.
"Bill Molnar and Maria Harris are some of the best planners I've ever seen from a policy side of things," Stalheim said. "They know what this community needs and they can help lead a lot of the future planning issues within this community. And all the other planning staff are really good.
"The connection needs to be back to the leadership and a little bit more the political side of things. And that's what probably needs to happen. So that's the biggest thing. So how do you bridge the day-to-day activities of this department with City Hall and City Council issues?"
Stalheim sought to increase the revenue of the city by streamlining the planning process. He considered reorganizing the appeals process that currently comes before the cantankerous council.
Councilor Kate Jackson likes the idea of removing the appeals process from the council agenda altogether. Although she believes the drag in the planning process isn't necessarily due to the council, she prefers an appeals process modeled after the county.
"It has been the planning commission process that has slowed down," Jackson said. "And that's at least partly because we have some very vocal opponents (of) projects in town.
"The council gets involved simply because the city decided to appeal plans in council rather than going to the Land Use Board of Appeals. I worked in Jackson County for two years, and in Jackson County the staff makes a tentative decision. If somebody wants to appeal that it goes to a hearings officer, not to the elected body. The hearings office makes the decision and after that it goes to LUBA, so it keeps it out of the political process."
Mayor John Morrison takes responsibility for the slowdown on the Community Development Department's planning commission. He attributes it to a "transition" process.
"I think the department is in I would call it 'transition,' just as the planning commission has been in transition," Morrison said. "We'd had a planning commission in this city for a long period of time. It was, perhaps, a comfortable group that worked with each other. I appointed some people to that group that have different points of view that have caused, or, shall we say, stimulated dialogue among that group. And it hasn't made everyone comfortable.
"But it doesn't mean that it's in disarray. It means that it's readjusting itself. It's trying to work with a sense of direction."
While the planning commission sorts out its transition process, the Community Development Department is experiencing a major transition with the departure of its leader. Although Stalheim steadfastly states that his decision to leave was a personal desire to return to Washington, the mayor and city councilors are concerned that a line has been crossed with respect to interaction with department heads.
"Because it's stuffed full of really smart, experienced people who are interested in government, this community does not hesitate to question absolutely everything," Bennett said. "I think the council reflects that."
All sources agree that the Ashland councilor asking the most questions is Cate Hartzell.
"Does Cate Hartzell have a bit of a reputation for looking over people's shoulders? Yeah," Morrison said. "Has she stepped over the line? I haven't been able to find out yet if she has."
Timeline: — Targeting Stalheim —
March 14: Hartzell sends an e-mail to Bennett that suggests there was a problem with her attendance at a planning commission meeting:"Just came home from Planning Commission meeting. Afterwards, David (Stalheim) and Richard (Interim City Attorney Richard Appicello) and I talked about whether it’s best for a council liaison to attend the quasi-judicial meetings. So, would be nice if we get a policy set on that. For now, I will watch from home, I guess."I gave David a note telling him I would like to call two planning items up for appeal unless I can get a list of questions answered that persuade me otherwise."
March 16: Councilors Alice Hardesty and Cate Hartzell meet with Stalheim at different times.March 30: Former City Attorney Mike Franell responds to Hartzell’s e-mailed "Request for copy of recent hire contracts." Hartzell was presumably seeking a copy of newly-hired IT Director Joe Franell. She also sought permission to share his resume. However, the subject line of the e-mail suggests a request for a copy of the contract of all new hires, which would include Stalheim.
June 13: Hartzell sends an e-mail to Bennett providing a preview of her intended request for a wide swath of information targeting Stalheim: "Martha, I thought I would let you see if you can obtain what I am looking for here before I sent this to the city recorder."
— June 27: Hartzell sends another e-mail to Bennett offering what appears to be a veiled threat while suggesting she has two additional votes on the council at her disposal: "I reiterate this request. If staff is unwilling to give it to me, I will have to figure out the technical pitfalls of submitting the request as a private citizen or advancing it as a council request. I may not get the last vote I need, but it will make public opinions that won’t reflect confidence in the planning director. "I have a meeting scheduled with him next Monday, but I don’t expect progress … July 18: Hartzell sends an e-mail to City Recorder Barbara Christensen requesting information related to Stalheim’s calendar: "Barbara, I would like to request a list of people whom Dave Stalheim interviewed and talked to (phone, in person, email [sic]) upon his arrival on his job, pursuant to his future work as Director. Any notes that he took during or after these meetings/conversations is also part of this request." July 19: Hartzell explains further in an e-mail to Christensen the depth of information she seeks: "Subject is whatever was discussed in the interviews that had the focus of his role in the dept.[sic], the future of planning in Ashland, the planning process and department, specific ordinances or regulations, staff and citizens, economic development, history of public discourse related to planning issues. From the time one month before he started to three months after."
— Sept. 17: Stalheim tenders his resignation. Expresses his love for Washington and intent to return to the city where he lived before coming to Ashland.
— Sept. 28: Tidings interviews Hartzell during an investigation into the state of the city.
Hartzell indicated that she is concerned about the decisions being made in the Community Development Department. She also responded to the question of vision for Ashland:
"There's no one policy and there's no one vision," Hartzell said. "But I held some meetings a couple of years ago "&
166;. People believed that we wanted to continue to diversify as a community and be able to contain that diversity.
"I believe there's a strong interest on the council and with a lot of people in town in making sure that we are resilient &
some people refer to that as sustainable. So I believe there's a strong interest and commitment on the council to making sure that our decisions line up with that criteria.
"I think one of the priorities has to do with housing and the economics of town. Ensuring that we're a diverse community means that we're going to have to make sure that our economic system and entities are vital and vibrant that there's jobs to be had here to the degree that those can be less service-sector and more other types of professionals and higher paying. And that economic system is really based on what the future looks like, that it's not relying on the old traditions or the old way things used to work."
Counselor Navickas echoed Hartzell's vision.
"My vision? I'd like to see Ashland become more diverse on a lot of different levels, mainly social. And I think one of the ways to do that is investing in economic development."
However, neither Hartzell nor Navickas were convinced Stalheim was heading in the right direction.
"I'm not really sure if he was a perfect match for Ashland either," Navickas said. "He comes from a state where you have less community involvement and more decisions are made administratively. I think when he got here he tried to make some pretty aggressive changes towards removing some community process, appeal on right of citizens so I think that he might not have been the perfect match."
Navickas explained that Stalheim's attempt to streamline the process came with a cost to those making appeals to which he objected. Those appealing would have to pay $4,000, which would enable their appeal to be heard.
Hartzell was apparently concerned enough about the proposed change in the planning process to send an e-mail to Interim City Attorney Richard Appicello on July 19 expressing her desire to obtain information pertaining to all individuals with whom Stalheim had spoken during his interviewing process in January. She also wanted to know if she could obtain his personnel file in a single councilor's request without the necessity of a full council approval.
Additionally, Hartzell was interested in knowing from Appicello if she could circumvent the protocol she received from Bennett regarding her desire to disallow the opportunity for citizens to pay for a hearing on land use proposals. She wrote:
"Also, I am interested in temporarily disallowing the opportunity for citizens to pay $4,000 to get a hearing on land use reform changes they propose. What's the best way to do that? Martha (Bennett) says we must keep it open for reasons related to Measure 37. It seems as strong an appeal in its potential to gum up our agenda, having people pay money to put legislative changes in front of us."
Stalheim's troubles are indicators of a systemic problem the city faces. It lacks vision. And without a vision set by the council, the city department heads cannot move in any direction that will please all the elected leaders.
"Well it's hard when you go to them and you want to talk about vision, and they don't want to talk about it," Bennett said. "It's tough for them to focus on the big things, so they focus on the small things.
"The thing that is frustrating at the staff level is when you need them to move something big, really advance it, and they can't for whatever reason. Because they can't talk together. Because they can't work together. They're all pretty demanding, I have more contact with policymakers here than anyplace else I've ever worked."
Stalheim agrees with Bennett's assessment of the difficulty in working with a council that lacks a definitive vision and policy for the city.
"When the council did their goal-setting I think they did it as a brainstorm, and the idea was to come back and do some refinement," Stalheim said.
"They want to do 200 affordable workforce housing units by the year 2010. That averages out to 80 units a year. Well, we did 80 units total in the city of Ashland last year. And so, in essence they are saying all the new housing units added to the city have to be affordable workforce housing.
"Going back and kind of truthing those things and saying, is this what you're really thinking? Are you saying construction? Or are you saying land acquisition so that we can do this over a longer period of time?"
Former City Administrator Gino Grimaldi said there was an absence of vision during his tenure here as well. He pointed to the failed "downtown plan."
"It was very difficult to get the community to wrap their arms around a common vision," Grimaldi said. "Even when you tried to do it on a small-scale basis it didn't work very well. I don't know whatever happened to the efforts regarding the Downtown Plan. But that's a good example of an inability to move forward on a vision just for the downtown. We never even came close to starting to work on a community vision."
The problems impacting the Community Development Department today aren't due solely to the turnover in its leadership. But that instability at the top has a measurable impact.
"I do think that turnover is hard on people," Bennett said. "It's hard because it's uncertain, because if feels like you're constantly starting and stopping projects.
"In David's (Stalheim) case, just about the time it felt like we were getting traction on projects, he knows he's leaving. And so what happens to those projects that he was leading?
"In fact what I heard from them (staff members) was 'Well, we're still in a transition. We thought we were going to come out of it. But no, we're still in it.'"
is the Content Editor of the Ashland Daily Tidings. He can be reached at 482-3456 x223 or
State of the City, Part 2
File photo | Daily TidingsCity Administrator Martha Bennett and Planning Director David Stalheim stand near the Croman site, shortly after Stalheim was hired in January. The site is a high priority project for the city.