Few people say they know Art Bullock well. Few people know Art is not his real name. Few people know why he moved to Ashland or what motivates his tireless legal opposition to the city's land-use and planning decisions.

But Mayor John Morrison says he has become far too acquainted with R.J. Bullock's legal tactics, which he, and many city staff and members of the planning commission believe have no merit.

"People in the community need to know that the city's been spending a lot of money defending itself from suits that seem to stem primarily from one person and that may say more about that person than it says about the city or its processes and procedures," Morrison said in a recent interview.

Newly hired city attorney is also all-too-familiar with Bullock. Richard Appicello who has been serving as the city's interim attorney is working on 14 land-use lawsuits, seven filed by Bullock.

Those few people who do say they know Bullock insist his only interest is defending the common people of Ashland from a government that is beholden to builders and developers.

The mysterious man in the middle of all the talk is the one person not interested in explaining himself. Bullock has refused numerous requests to be interviewed for this and other stories. Though he'll regularly stand in City Council meetings to challenge or scold councilors, he ducks when photographers approach to get his picture. And though he is a target of many fed up with his antics, he shows no sign of letting up on his legal handiwork, whatever his objective may be.

"I imagine he sees himself as crusading for the little person, the voice that stands up against authority; but, I just feel he's somebody who isn't looking for compromise and trying to build a community," said Planning Commissioner John Fields.

Fields, who has been a member of the commission since 1998, said Bullock is an obstructionist, sniping from the sides rather than "trying to actually contribute something positive" to the city.

"He criticizes and throws himself in the machinery to try to bring it to a stop, and it's a way to have a voice and it's a way to feel heard," Fields said. "He is very intelligent and fairly articulate and you can agree with him on independent points but in terms of all the suits that he's made he is not being very effective."

Fields added that Bullock is neither making Ashland a "better place to live" nor bringing people together.

Legal challenges

In all, Bullock has seven cases in various stages of litigation against the city, challenging local planning decisions.

Among the lawsuits Bullock and others have filed with him are three challenging local improvement districts, two along Nevada Street and one on Schofield Street. The district would tax residents and businesses for street and sidewalk maintenance.

He is also challenging the final plans for a 4.34-acre housing subdivision on the historic Helman Baths property on Otis Street, and has a lawsuit to curb development at Glenn and North Main streets.

Ashland City Administrator Martha Bennett said the seven lawsuits could potentially cost the city $170,000 to litigate. In two of the cases, the city has requested to be paid legal costs by Bullock and his co-litigants, and Morrison said that could ultimately stem the tide of lawsuits filed by Bullock.

"At this point, I think we may have to let this play out a little bit and see what degree of success Mr. Bullock has" in the courts, Morrison said. "If he has success then there are things we need to fix. If he fails, then he'll be paying court fees and that will put an end to it right there."

A worthy cause

Still many wonder, what prompted the flood of lawsuits from this City Hall gadfly?

Philip Lang, who along with Art Bullock is suing the city over the Nevada Street local improvement district, said the city has brought it on itself by routinely breaking or flouting its own ordinances and state laws to give advantage to developers and real estate agents.

Planning Commission Chairman John Stromberg said he is not familiar with the intricateness of Bullock's lawsuits in case the state courts find a flaw in the city planning decision and remands the decision back to the planning commission.

"It doesn't happen very often, but if I have been exposed to that discussion and those arguments then I have to bring all that stuff in the public discussion process," said Stromberg, who ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 2006.

Bullock, he said, has not only criticized the process, but has also provided the city "useful suggestions" and "finds mistakes" the city has made in its planning and land-use decisions.

"You need to examine the specifics of each case because sometimes he's wrong and sometimes he's right," Stromberg said. "Sometimes he raises absolutely legitimate issues."

As for Bullock's charges that the city staff, councilors and commissioners are too cozy, Stromberg agreed, saying there is a basis for his concern.

"There is a natural tendency in government to concentrate power," Stromberg said, adding that Bullock is within his rights to voice his grievances against the city government. "This is a democratic government and we try to listen to people. In terms of whether he is a nuisance or a hero, I am supposed to be neutral and fair. When he comes (to the Planning Commission) he gets a fair hearing like everybody else."

covers politics for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at csrizo@hotmail.com.