The stakes are high as the city of Ashland prepares to choose among five finalists to become the new head of the Ashland Fiber Network.

The stakes are high as the city of Ashland prepares to choose among five finalists to become the new head of the Ashland Fiber Network.

Whoever is hired will take on the title of information technology director, and will be tasked with heading AFN and managing the city's internal computer and technology systems.

The job requires a blend of knowledge about government plus business.

Launched in the late 1990s, AFN amassed a $15.5 million debt.

Joe Franell was hired in 2006 from the private sector to turn around the city-owned Internet and cable television service.

Following his recommendation, the city privatized AFN's money-losing television service. Franell took a new job in eastern Oregon in 2008.

In the past several years, AFN began contributing toward its debt payment — but not enough to cover the full amount due each year.

This fiscal year, AFN is paying $350,000 toward a debt payment of $1.43 million.

To make up the rest, the city paid money that could have been used to lower residents' electricity bills, increased property taxes and cut budgets for other departments — a move that contributed to city staff lay-offs.

City officials and selected community members conducted panel interviews with five information technology director finalists on Friday. Mayor John Stromberg will appoint a new information technology director with the Ashland City Council's confirmation.

The finalists are:

Northwestern University Converged Technologies Manager Christine Fernlund from Illinois; David Hand, president and chief executive officer of Data Center West, Inc. in Medford; Robert Lloyd, information technology professional and vice chief of information technologies for the Colorado Division of Wildlife; Earl Simmers, information technology director for the city of Apache Junction, Ariz. and Ron Tiedeman, information and communication director for the city of Puyallup, Wash.

The current salary range for the information technology director position is $90,591 to $101,824 per year, said Ashland Human Resources Director Tina Gray.

The amount the city will pay for benefits varies based on factors such as whether the person has family members who would receive health insurance, she said.

In August 2009, the City Council voted unanimously to hire The Waters-Oldani Consulting Group, Inc. for to conduct a nationwide search for an information technology director at a price of $25,000.

Long-time AFN employee Michael Ainsworth, who has been filling in as interim information technology director, did not apply for the position, Gray said.

In addition to tackling AFN's financial situation, the new information technology director could help various city departments find and use the right technology to improve services and efficiency.

Ashland Fire & Rescue, for example, hasn't adopted new technology that could help emergency medical technicians transfer patient information quickly to nurses and doctors at hospitals, said Fire Chief John Karns.

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