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Ashland council suffers lack of leadership

At least this time, they’re not spending $37,000 of taxpayers’ money to learn how to act like grownups.

That was the price tag in 2007 when the Ashland City Council hired a professional counselor for five months of training sessions to help them work together constructively.

This time, the council adopted a code of conduct that requires members to avoid negative personal comments, and provides for public discussion at the next council meeting if a member feels the code has been breached.

Meanwhile, the council’s dysfunction has spilled over to other city positions and the all-important search for a permanent city manager. Two separate executive search firms have withdrawn from their contracts with the city, and City Attorney David Lohman has announced he will retire July 1 for “professional and personal reasons.”

The second recruiter said she was withdrawing because she was “treated rudely, my ethics were questioned, and I felt I was being asked to do something that may not have been in alignment with the full council’s decision.”

Lohman’s retirement announcement was preceded by an email exchange with Mayor Julie Akins after Lohman urged the mayor and council to adhere more closely to Robert’s Rules of parliamentary procedure. Akins responded that she followed the Ashland Municipal Code, and declared that “If you’re trying to thwart the will of the people, launch a recall and take your chances.” She suggested Lohman’s advice was intended to “undermine the office of the mayor,” and said “I consider these behaviors as part of a pattern of harassment.”

Akins tried to veto a council vote to put the city manager search on hold, saying Ashland voters approved changing the city government to a council-manager system from the previous strong mayor model, and the council should honor that by pushing ahead with the recruiting process.

Akins is right that the voters wanted a change, but she seems to have missed the part of that vote that limited the mayor’s role to conducting meetings and breaking ties. Her attempt to use the veto power she does have fell flat because she apparently did not understand that it did not apply to the vote to delay the search.

What Akins does not understand appears to outweigh what she does comprehend. She served as a council member before running for mayor, and should have had a thorough grasp of Robert’s Rules of Order before taking on the responsibility of presiding over council meetings.

When it comes to council members treating each other disrespectfully, there is plenty of blame to go around. There are factions on the council that strongly disagree over the city’s direction, and they don’t always behave in a collegial manner.

But the presiding officer — in this case, the mayor — bears ultimate responsibility for ensuring meetings are productive and the participants remain civil to each other. Assuming a defensive posture, daring those she sees as critics to launch a recall and claiming a “pattern of harassment” does not inspire confidence in her leadership abilities.

Akins also has a pattern of airing criticism of other council members on social media — not the most professional way to handle council business.

The code of conduct the council adopted May 13 says members 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.”

That really shouldn’t be difficult for adults to manage, especially those elected to positions of civic responsibility. But it’s harder to accomplish that goal without strong leadership.