The city of Ashland has spent about $1,350 on a facilitator who led public forums dealing with the city's tax on prepared meals and beverages.

The city spent about $1,350 on a facilitator who led public forums last week dealing with Ashland's tax on prepared meals and beverages.

Adrienne Graham, lead consultant for Leapfrog Training & Facilitation, helped set up and then guide morning, afternoon and evening public forums on May 18. A former Ashland resident, she now lives in Bend.

Graham will submit data gathered at the forums to the Ashland City Council.

Several city staff members were also present at the public forums, which attracted a total of 21 people.

The city's management analyst, Ann Seltzer, estimated Graham put in about 20 hours of work and will be paid about $1,350.

"Do I think that was a good use of money? Yes, I do, because I believe in the importance of strengthening public trust in government," Seltzer said. "Having an unbiased facilitator helps that."

Seltzer said she is involved with the International Association for Public Participation, and has heard again and again that independent facilitators can foster public trust.

"I think there can be a feeling that if city staff facilitates, city staff is trying to direct and lead. Using an independent facilitator does not give the public that impression," she said.

At the public forums, which were attended predominantly by people associated with businesses that collect the prepared food and beverage tax, participants shared their views on the tax.

The 5 percent tax will sunset in 2010 unless it is renewed by voters in November.

Since its inception, the tax has generated $22.5 million, with $18 million going to make debt payments on Ashland's sewage treatment plant and $4.5 million used to buy park land, according to city figures.

Oregon Restaurant Association Southern Oregon Regional Representative Drew Baily attended all three meetings about the meals tax on May 18.

Baily said he didn't want to comment about the amount of money the city spent on the facilitator, but he thought it was beneficial to have a neutral, independent person leading the forums.

"If it would have been, for example, just Ann Seltzer, (Finance Director) Lee Tuneberg and a councilor, it might have gotten ugly," Baily said. "Conversations like that tend to digress. I've had my own conversations on the meals tax that didn't go far because it gets pretty emotional."

Baily said restaurant owners have a range of opinions on the meals tax, so the restaurant association has yet to take a position on its possible renewal.

The restaurant industry is opposed to an industry-specific tax, however, and would like a more broad-based tax if there is going to be one, he said.

In April, the city paid $3,074 to an Albany facilitator for about a week of work that included guiding a day-long City Council goal-setting session.

Seltzer said the city will probably use a facilitator again to get public input when it begins work on an economic development plan.

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