The Ashland City Council just did something that should become a regular practice. It appointed a city recorder.
The time for a charter change to make the recorder an appointed rather than an elected position is long overdue. Charter amendment language has already been drafted and the council should refer the amendment to the ballot in the May 2018 election.
Ashland is one of only three cities in Oregon that elects its city recorder. The other two have populations of 50 and 2,000.
The elected position dates back to the earliest days of the City. When Ashland first adopted its charter in 1908, the positions of municipal judge (then called the “police judge”) and city recorder were combined in a single position. However, the city fathers (emphasis on fathers) felt that it was not appropriate for women to serve as the police judge (but it was OK for women to serve as the recorder), so the city split the two positions and continued each as an elected office.
Fast forward to 2015. The mayor appoints an ad hoc committee to examine the question of whether the city recorder should be an appointed position. After hours of research and deliberation, the committee unanimously recommends that, yes, it should be appointed. Its basic reasons:
There are currently no minimum qualifications for the position. Making it appointive allows the city to create qualifications and recruit for qualified candidates and to transfer certain duties to the Finance Department, where they more properly belong.
Elected offices should be reserved for policy-makers who make policy decisions. The city recorder is a professional clerical position that makes clerical and administrative decisions. Such positions should be filled based on the knowledge, skills and abilities of the candidates who apply, not on the basis of who can garner the most votes in an election.
An appointed recorder would allow the city to draw from a larger pool of qualified applicants. Right now the pool is limited to registered voters in the City of Ashland.
However, before the committee could even present its findings to the council, one city councilor publicly announced (in a Daily Tidings guest opinion) opposition to such a move. The council, believing that unanimity was necessary to effect such a change, backed away and did nothing with the committee recommendation.
That councilor’s arguments boiled down to: 1. We’ve always done it this way and it hasn’t been a problem; and 2. An appointed city recorder would make city government less transparent.
However, “we’ve always done it this way” is the worst possible reason for continuing to do something. Did you know that not a single woman voted in favor of Ashland’s initial charter in 1908? In fact, not a single woman voted, because they weren’t allowed to vote! And there were no doubt plenty of city councilors at the time reasoning, “So what? We’ve always done it this way and it hasn’t been a problem.” Thank God more reasonable and forward-thinking minds prevailed in that debate.
As for transparency, there isn’t a shred of evidence that cities with appointed recorders are less transparent than Ashland. What’s more, it’s the council’s job, not the recorder’s, to ensure that city government is transparent. The recorder is simply a functionary who helps the council (and the staff) in that regard.
Remember the county clerk in Kentucky who denied marriage licenses to gay couples? She was an elected official. After a few days in jail, she was back on the job. An appointed clerk would have been summarily fired. Appointed officials can be held accountable in ways that elected officials cannot.
And closer to home, the minutes of the aforementioned ad hoc committee mysteriously disappeared from the city’s website a long time ago — if they were ever there at all. So much for transparency.
The time has come. The council should refer a charter amendment to make the city recorder an appointed position.
— Brian Almquist was Ashland’s city administrator from 1970 to 1998. Dave Kanner was Ashland’s city administrator from 2012 to 2016.