The city is paying an out-of-town facilitator $3,074.80 for about a week of work that included facilitating a City Council goal-setting session.

The city is paying an out-of-town facilitator $3,074.80 for about a week of work that included facilitating a City Council goal-setting session.

Most councilors agreed to hire the facilitator rather than have a city staff person or Mayor John Stromberg facilitate a Saturday goal-setting session for free.

But Councilor Greg Lemhouse opposed hiring a facilitator.

"At this point, we need to try and save as much money as we can. Three thousand dollars is three thousand dollars," Lemhouse said this week.

On Friday, the city announced a proposed $81 million budget for the coming fiscal year that will require cuts that include laying off two firefighters, the Community Emergency Response Team coordinator, two utility workers and a parks technician.

Lemhouse said his objections about the cost of the facilitator, Stephen Bryant of Albany, were not a reflection on Bryant's skills or performance. He said Bryant did a great job and the goal-setting session went well. Lemhouse had objected to the idea of hiring a facilitator at least as far back as February.

Bryant put in about three days of work preparing for the meeting, facilitated the day-long Saturday session, and will do about a half day's worth of follow-up, said City Administrator Martha Bennett.

Bennett recommended Bryant, whom she has worked with in the past, to the council. He previously was the head of the city of Albany's staff.

Stromberg, who as mayor both facilitates and leads City Council meetings, said at first he thought he could facilitate the goal-setting session himself, or that Bennett could perform the task, or the two of them could do it together.

"But most of the council wanted me to be able to participate and not be simultaneously facilitating. The concerns about that made me open to the possibility," Stromberg said.

He said Bryant brought both strong facilitation skills as well as in-depth knowledge of city and state government processes and issues.

Stromberg said hiring a facilitator who doesn't know about government could have meant having a less effective facilitator. Also, it could have been difficult to hire a local facilitator because that person might be involved in local political issues.

"The person has to be politically acceptable to all the councilors," he said.

Stromberg said he doesn't know how taxpayers will react to the news of the city paying for Bryant to do facilitation.

"If they understand what was going on, they will understand we got a deal. He's aware these are very sensitive times. I didn't view him as just a facilitator, but also as a very knowledgeable expert in city management and Oregon government," Stromberg said.

Local facilitator Karen Bolda, who has experience with government entities like the federal Bureau of Land Management, said in an e-mail that she was frustrated that the City Council brought in a distant facilitator when there are so many excellent local facilitators.

Asked by the Tidings to estimate how much she would have charged for facilitation work that involved about a week's time plus travel, she put the figure at between $3,500 and $5,000, including expenses.

Bryant has billed the city of Ashland $2,775 for his consulting work plus $299.80 in expenses.

At Medford-based Mediation Works, Director of Workplace and Community Services Matthew Hartman estimated his organization's fee for the work would have been about $2,000. That represents rates for work with government and nonprofit organizations, and is lower than the corporate rate.

He said, to his knowledge, Mediation Works doesn't have a facilitator with extensive experience inside government. But hiring a facilitator with substantial government experience could actually be negative.

"They can get more involved in the decision-making, which is not the role of a facilitator," Hartman said.

He said Mediation Works strives to be apolitical and impartial, and its facilitators adhere to strict ethical guidelines for the profession.

City Councilor David Chapman said he would rather have had the facilitation work done in-house, or at least have used a local facilitator, perhaps a volunteer from the community.

Chapman said he could see why it was beneficial to have someone other than Stromberg facilitate the goal-setting session.

"When you're the mayor and running the meeting, you have to stand back a bit rather than be a part of the discussion. We need the mayor to be a part of the discussion," Chapman said.

Councilor Carol Voisin said she was okay with using an outside facilitator.

"I basically felt we should have someone from the outside but also incorporate the mayor and city administrator because they are pretty good leaders," she said.

For her part, Councilor Kate Jackson said she thinks paying for the outside facilitator was well worth the money, adding that, "When you want professional services, you have to pay for them."

Jackson said the mayor needs to be able to actively participate in the process and not be hampered by a role as facilitator. Hiring a facilitator allowed Stromberg to contribute his views, she said.

"I believe it's worth having someone manage the process when you have a group of policy makers who need to make tough compromises given the realities of the budget and the scope of work," Jackson said.

Councilor Russ Silbiger said he doesn't view the amount spent or the hiring of an out-of-town facilitator as big issues.

"I don't think anyone local who was good would be that much cheaper," he said. "I was more focused on us doing goal setting well and coming up with good goals."

Councilor Eric Navickas said it was important to have a facilitator who was knowledgeable about government, but who could also be objective because he's not involved in Ashland issues.

The amount the city has spent on work related to annual council goal-setting sessions has varied widely in the past several years, according to figures provided by Bennett.

In 2005, the city spent $1,218.70. The figure rose to $6,780 in 2006 and to $7,158.87 in 2007. Then it fell to $2,512.50 in 2008, compared to the $3,074.80 spent for this year.

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