Outgoing Ashland Mayor John Morrison disagrees with some residents who have labeled the Ashland City Council of the last several years a 'do-nothing council.'

Outgoing Ashland Mayor John Morrison disagrees with some residents who have labeled the Ashland City Council of the last several years a "do-nothing council."

The council make-up will change dramatically in January, when Planning Commissioner John Stromberg will take Morrison's seat as mayor. Morrison didn't seek re-election.

Councilor Alice Hardesty also didn't seek reelection and will be replaced by Carol Voison.

Councilor Cate Hartzell lost her seat to challenger Greg Lemhouse.

Councilors Russ Silbiger, Eric Navickas, Kate Jackson and David Chapman will remain on the council.

Morrison, who was elected mayor in 2004, said the City Council has actually taken major steps forward on a variety of issues.

"I stand very proud of what we have accomplished in the last four years," he said.

Just in the past few months, the council and Jackson Housing Authority agreed to team up on a 60-unit affordable housing development on Clay Street.

Two years ago, the council also authorized opening up city buildings for homeless people at night when temperatures dip to life-threatening levels. Ashland has no overnight shelter and a day-use facility where homeless people could take showers, pick up mail and get help finding jobs closed when its parent agency shifted resources to Medford.

Morrison, Hartzell and Hardesty all said they are proud of the progress the city has made on affordable housing and creating emergency overnight shelter.

Hartzell sees struggling residents every day in her job in the Oregon Department of Human Services' food stamp office. She said homeless people who are visible at Interstate 5's Exit 14 and Exit 19 are just the tip of the iceberg.

"There are people of all ages and circumstances who are homeless. The absence of health insurance puts people on the streets or they are couch surfers," Hartzell said.

Although she will be leaving office, Hartzell plans to meet with Ashland Police Chief Terry Holderness and others who deal with homeless issues in January.

Revolving door

Holderness is just one of the city department heads hired by the mayor with council confirmation in the last four years.

Morrison faced one of his first controversies as mayor when a police officers' association issued a vote of no-confidence in then-Police Chief Mike Bianca.

Morrison and the council replaced Bianca, and the new police chief has been active in implementing the council's vision for community policing.

While the council has spent considerable time hiring new department heads, the high rate of city staff turn-over has also drawn the ire of some residents.

Hartzell especially drew fire when she asked for phone, e-mail and meeting records of newly hired Planning Director David Stalheim. He then left Ashland after less than a year on the job. The council replaced him with long-time Community Development Department staff member Bill Molnar.

Despite changing leadership in the department, the city was successful in weeding out contradictory and ambiguous land-use planning rules to make planning and development in Ashland more clear and efficient, Morrison said.

After the collapse of a recruitment effort to replace outgoing City Attorney Mike Franell, the council again hired from within and promoted Assistant City Attorney Richard Appicello to head the legal department.

Ashland Fiber Network leader Joe Franell, brother of Mike Franell, took a job earlier this year in eastern Oregon and longtime Fire Chief Keith Woodley is retiring this month.

During Joe Franell's time in Ashland, the city privatized the Ashland Fiber Network's money-losing cable television service while keeping the more lucrative high-speed Internet side of the enterprise. AFN had run up a $15.5 million debt.

"We still have to deal with the debt but we have stopped the hemorrhaging," Morrison said.

Controversy abounds

The council faced another controversy when it tried to intervene in the proposed Mt. Ashland Ski Area expansion, prompting the Mt. Ashland Association to sue the city. The city lost the court case and now owes $300,000 to pay city and Mt. Ashland Association legal bills.

But the council and the city's own Forest Lands Commission and fire chief worked cooperatively with the U.S. Forest Service to plan a forest thinning project in the Ashland Watershed that will reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire.

Morrison said the council has been driven by a desire to protect the watershed.

"If we ever had to replace that source of water, it would cost millions," he said.

After public spats mainly involving Councilors Chapman and Navickas, Councilor Hardesty suggested the council get training from nationally known communications trainer and author Rick Kirschner. The $37,000 counseling sessions for the council attracted national media attention as well as ridicule from many Ashland residents.

However, after the sessions, the council meetings were noticeably more efficient and cooperative.

Hardesty said she hopes the incoming councilors, Mayor-elect Stromberg and the remaining councilors will retain the lessons from the communications training.

"John Stromberg is already good at that. I think the rest of the council will do well and will make an effort to work together and compromise if necessary," Hardesty said.

In one area where hardly anyone found fault with elected officials, the mayor and council were early supporters of efforts to reopen the Ashland Public Library and then keep it open full-time with programs for kids and homebound residents.

"It was one of Ashland's finest hours," Morrison said.

Ashland voters have twice approved property tax levies to supplement Jackson County's limited funding of the library. The council placed both levies on the ballot.

Looking ahead

As for the future, Morrison said he will continue with contract work he has been doing for the Rogue Valley Council of Governments that deals with the Bear Creek Greenway. He also hopes to stay on Gov. Ted Kulongoski's Tourism and Transportation Task Force. But he also wants a slower pace of life and plans to be semi-retired.

"I want to catch up on some of my deferred vacations," said Morrison, who served four years as a councilor before serving four years as mayor.

Hardesty, a nationally and internationally recognized expert on hearing loss, said she hopes to catch up on her consulting work and perhaps return to singing and playing the recorder. She is chair of the artistic committee for Chamber Music Concerts.

Hardesty said she would like to stay involved in affordable housing issues and has applied to be on the city's Housing Commission. She served on that body before she was appointed two and a half years ago and then elected to fill out the term of her late husband, Jack Hardesty.

Hartzell served eight years on the council and was on the Citizens' Budget Committee before that.

She will keep working for the state in social services and will stay active on issues ranging from homelessness to watershed health. Hartzell was appointed this summer to the Jackson County Housing Authority Board of Directors.

Hartzell said she hopes the incoming councilors and mayor can keep their eyes on the big picture while attending to the myriad of details that go into running a city. At the same time, with local and national economic troubles, Hartzell said she would like residents to know that their help and input is needed.

The city recently announced layoffs and service cuts as it works to close a $540,000 budget shortfall.

"As a community, we have to go shoulder to shoulder and find ways to address problems," Hartzell said. "We can't expect the city to do it all."

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.