Ashland 'too great a risk' for professional recruiter

·6 min read

May 21—The withdrawal of two recruitment companies from the search for an Ashland city manager has opened a debate among city officials about whether to press on — facing a fast-approaching expiration date on the interim city manager's contract — or pause the search and take a closer look at why those two firms fled.

The snafu came as the city attorney announced he would also leave the city to retire.

In May 2020 voters approved the creation of a city manager position to supplant the post of city administrator.

During a May 13 special council meeting, Councilor Paula Hyatt made a motion to suspend the city manager recruitment process until Aug. 1 to investigate why Peckham & McKenney and Wendi Brown Creative Partners severed their contracts. The motion passed 5-1, with Councilor Shaun Moran casting the single nay vote.

Mayor Julie Akins initiated a veto on the council decision, claiming that continuing a search on the previous timeline might reduce the city's administrative vulnerability. The veto is null because an approved motion is not subject to the rules associated with formal resolutions, which the mayor may overturn and place on a future city council agenda for another vote, requiring two-thirds in favor to pass, according to Robert's Rules and Resolutions.

In an email to the City Council dated May 17, Akins said her effort to veto "didn't pass muster" with the legal department.

According to Human Resource Director Tina Gray, recruiting firm Peckham & McKenney withdrew because the recruiters were "concerned about the significant hurdles this recruitment presents."

Their concerns included the city's transition to a new form of government in a strained financial environment, failed fire chief recruitment (two candidates turned down the job before acting Chief Ralph Sartain assumed the post), high turnover in the city administrator position, failure to consider the city manager pro tem as a candidate, and "differing viewpoints on experience and education requirements among the council."

In an email to the council dated March 8, Gray wrote that the circumstances would cause any professional recruiter to be wary, and together presented too much of a risk for the firm.

Wendi Brown, president of the second recruiting firm to back out, said she had never before released a contract in 20 years of work.

"During the time of this recruitment I was treated rudely, my ethics were questioned, and I felt I was being asked to do something that may have not been in alignment with the full council's decision," Brown wrote to the mayor and council.

Councilor Gina DuQuenne, who initially voted in favor of delaying the search for city manager, asked the council to reconsider its decision at the May 18 council business meeting. The motion failed 4-2, with DuQuenne and Councilor Shaun Moran voting in favor of reconsideration.

"After a lot of thought, I would like council to move forward with the advertisement and information already in place," DuQuenne said before the vote. "We can begin to receive applications now, allowing Adam Hanks, city manager pro tem, the opportunity to apply for city manager if he'd like."

Without a recruiter at the helm, Hanks said several questions remain unanswered, such as a new timeline, who will review applications, final selection criteria and city staff's role in advertising the post. Hanks' interim contract expires Sept. 1.

Hanks previously declined to comment on whether he intended to apply for the position and directed questions about the position to HR.

In support of maintaining the delay approved by the council, Councilor Stephen Jensen repeated a call to take the time "to get our act together" and "judiciously consider our way forward as a unified body in order to not make the mistakes that we made in the past."

Moran's response — a demand for clarity about Jensen's meaning — prompted Akins to remind councilors of the newly approved code of conduct.

At a May 13 special meeting, the council unanimously adopted a code of conduct that states the council should, "practice respect, professionalism and decorum during discussion and debate. Assume good intentions and refrain from impugning motives or professional competency of any meeting participant, including city staff, presenters and the public."

The code of conduct requires meeting members to avoid misleading or negative personal comments and "casting aspersion either directly or indirectly," under risk of placing the city in legal and financial jeopardy. "One may speak in opposition, but do so without personal rancor," the code says.

On May 5, City Attorney David Lohman announced that he planned to retire after 10 years with the city "for both professional and personal reasons," according to a letter he sent to the mayor, council and commissioners. His last day with the city is July 1. Lohman said he intends to transition the role to Assistant City Attorney Katrina Brown in the interim.

Two weeks prior, Lohman sent an email to Akins and the City Council, CC: Hanks and City Recorder Melissa Huhtala, encouraging a closer adherence to Robert's Rules of parliamentary procedure during meetings.

Lohman summarized five procedures he said may have been "used to good effect" at the April 20 meeting and prompted six questions for the council to resolve. The questions included procedure for voting on items pulled from the consent agenda, vetting and approving commission applications, handling "perceived lapses of civility or respect," wrap-up when items do not end with a motion, ensuring staff directions not codified in law are supported by a council majority, and standard agenda item routine.

Akins wrote that she adheres to mayoral duties that are clear in Ashland Municipal Code, and alleged Lohman's message undermined and added confusion to the interpretation of established council rules and city laws.

"If y'all want to undermine the office of the mayor, that will affect all who follow," Akins wrote. "If you're trying to thwart the will of the people, launch a recall and take your chances. At this point, I consider these behaviors as part of a pattern of harassment."

In response, Lohman said Akins' characterization skewed his intent, and his message fell within the bounds of his role as parliamentarian per the city code — a responsibility to "be alert to any problems that are developing and advise the presiding officer on proper procedures."

On April 27, Akins posted on social media that veteran councilors seemed perpetually confused about clear-cut city code.

In response to a comment on the post recommending a new city attorney, Akins pointed to Ashland's legal woes and said the former mayor called Lohman his "consigliere" — something former mayor John Stromberg said is being improperly portrayed to discredit Lohman's expertise and value to the city.

Stromberg said he used the term because he sought Lohman's counsel ... informed by a career specializing in Oregon politics, law and economic development.

"He had connections all over the place and he was very well respected, so that's what I meant: "A consigliere is a counselor," Stromberg said. "He was a great person for helping a mayor who was trying to figure out what's going on find his way."

Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497.

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