The city of Ashland will pay $25,000 to a recruiting firm for help in finding an Ashland Fiber Network leader.

The city will pay $25,000 to a recruiting firm for help in finding an Ashland Fiber Network leader.

Joe Franell was hired in 2006 to take over AFN, but left Ashland in October 2008 to take a new job.

The salary range for his position as Information Technology Director was $90,591 to $101,824, Ashland Human Resources Director Tina Gray said.

The position includes leading AFN as well as heading the staff members who work on the city government's internal computer systems.

Long-time AFN employee Michael Ainsworth has been serving as Interim Information Technology Director since Franell's departure.

On Aug. 18, the City Council voted unanimously to hire The Waters-Oldani Consulting Group, Inc. for professional recruitment services at a price of $25,000.

The vote came without any discussion by council members.

The issue of whether to hire the firm was on the council's consent agenda, a time at the beginning of a meeting when councilors approve a batch of routine items all at once. Any councilor can pull an item off the consent agenda for discussion and a separate vote, but no one did so for the AFN item.

The City Council had not had prior public discussions about whether to hire an AFN leader.

In a later interview, City Administrator Martha Bennett said she did not have to put the topic of hiring a recruiting company before the council at all since the contract for services was less than $50,000.

"I put it on the agenda so the council would be aware of us using a recruitment firm. I put it on the consent agenda as a matter of transparency," she said.

Bennett said she had discussed the issue of whether to recruit a leader with Mayor John Stromberg. The mayor appoints department heads with the consent of the council.

Bennett said councilors had expressed concerns about whether an AFN business plan Ainsworth had previously presented to them was aggressive enough in trying to increase the number of AFN customers.

Recruiting for the AFN leader position is not a reflection on Ainsworth's performance, since he stepped up to fill the position when Franell left, said Bennett, adding that she wants Ainsworth to apply for the position.

"The best thing we can do is go out and recruit and see what's out there. It's a good time to recruit. There's not a lot of recruiting going on right now," she said.

The city began building AFN in the late 1990s. It operated without its own director until Franell was hired in 2006. Prior to then, the city's Electric Department Director was in charge of both the Electric Department and AFN.

AFN — which offered both Internet and cable television — built up $15.5 million in debt before Franell's hiring because expenses were higher than expected. AFN and Charter Communications also competed fiercely with each other and for years offered below-market rate prices on services in Ashland.

Franell privatized the money-losing cable television service with the consent of the City Council. AFN finally began helping to make payments on the debt.

The debt payment for this fiscal year is $1,431,378 and AFN is tasked with paying $356,000 of that.

Other city departments have suffered cuts while helping to shoulder the AFN debt.

Adding back an AFN leader at a cost of about $100,000 plus benefits could further strain AFN financially, but going without could prove costly as well.

Councilor Russ Silbiger said even though AFN has made changes like getting out of the cable television business, it still must operate in a highly competitive environment.

"This is high technology. We do have competition and the industry changes. I absolutely do no believe 'autopilot' should be the operative word when it comes to AFN," he said.

Silbiger said he was not bothered that the issue of whether to hire a recruiting firm was on the council's consent agenda. He said it's up to the City Administrator and the mayor to plan such steps.

"When any other department head left, they didn't come to the council and say, 'Should we find another department head?' Nothing was different for this than for any other department head position," Silbiger said.

He said whoever becomes the new head of AFN, he hopes that person will take a look at whether AFN is overstaffed. Silbiger said he had expected to see positions cut when AFN stopped offering cable television.

Bennett said some AFN staff members began working on support functions for the city's internal computer systems.

"Another good reason to hire from outside is to see if we're appropriately staffed. We shifted staff into the technology support program. We are lean on internal support to departments given the complexity of the computer systems we use," Bennett said.

In the past several years, the city has hired a new fire chief, police chief, public works director, city administrator and parks director from outside Ashland. City Attorney Richard Appicello was promoted from within the legal department, and Community Development Director Bill Molnar was promoted from within the community development department.

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