Think Nationally, Act Locally: City of Ashland Mayor State of the City tackles local versions of national issues
In early January—a few days before President Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union address—City of Ashland Mayor John Stromberg gave his State of the City address.
“Nationally, 2015 was a tipping point year,” he began, “by which I mean that on multiple issues a significant number of people decided to abandon the status quo and do something about a long-simmering problem even though, or because, it would significantly and irreversibly change their lives as they know them.” He went on to list several major issues that started in cities and captured the national attention—or, in the case of police shootings of unarmed black residents, connected incidents from across the nation into a disturbing pattern. Mayor Stromberg talked about Black Lives Matter, and about ending gun violence and mass shootings. He also focused on climate change and gay marriage, and more generally, about civility and caring for each other.
“Long delayed and needed changes finally got momentum, even though they involve significant disruption to the status quo, are complex, require resources and may take a long time and sustained resolve to carry out,” he said. “Society will be profoundly improved because of them.”
He went on to talk about “tipping points” and local version of these national issues.” It was a wide-ranging speech, as inspiring as it was practical.
“It is time for Ashland to do something,” he said, as a call to action. “Like the national issues, the effort will be long, complex, difficult, require resources and we will become an improved community that is truer to its root values for the effort.”
A week after his speech, Mayor Stromberg reflected on his speech and mission with the Rogue Valley Messenger.
RVM: There seemed to be three big themes for the State of the City: emergency preparedness, climate change and helping people in need. I’m hoping you can detail exactly how you believe the City of Ashland can achieve those.
JS: To be more specific: One, developing and implementing family preparedness plans for sheltering in place for two weeks, which will help make it possible for employees to do their jobs restoring basic services in Ashland. Two, running a community involvement process, based on a greenhouse gas inventory for the entire community, that is almost complete. And through this process, getting grassroots participation in setting targets for reducing emissions and implementation strategies. Also for adaptation strategies and implementation regarding the effects of climate change. Three, finding ways of dealing with disruptive behavior downtown and simultaneously doing more to help our local homeless people. The latter could include connecting people with the new mental health facility Jackson County plans to establish in Ashland, similarly for Vets and Vets resources, people with substance abuse problems, young people taking advantage of resources and programs designed specifically for them, enhancing the work of the Recourse Center, helping to fund St. Vincent De Paul, etc.
RVM: For climate change: Are there specific ordinances you want the City of Ashland to promote or enact?
JS: At this point community participation is our key focus, built around emission reduction and climate change adaptation.
RVM: For helping people in need: Is this more about employment or about housing? And, how do you believe the City of Ashland can best help?
JS: There is an important distinction between people in need who can be brought back into a functioning role in society with both employment and housing; and people who are in need of more basic help before they can be capable of getting a job and being able to live independently in conventional housing. Some professionals believe in providing housing first but that requires lots of resource, both money and trained staff.
Cities, especially ones Ashland’s size are not organized to provide these services. Cities’ jobs are to provide basic services (public safety, water, sewer, electricity, streets, land use planning and building permitting, etc.) We are unusual in the degree to which we provide social services and we try to leverage our resources by partnering with outside organizations such as churches, as an example.
RVM: Is there a paradox in between becoming a tourist town and creating an affordable city? Or, how do you see the City’s role in balancing those?
JS: We live in an incredible location and have both a university and a nationally known theater company. OSF gets over 100,000 unique visitors annually (in a town of 20,000) many of whom have been coming her for decades. We really have visitors more than we have tourists. In order to support our visitor economy, which consists largely of locally-owned small businesses the Chamber of Commerce and City have teamed up to promote visitors coming in the off season of OSF. The more attractive Ashland becomes the more upward pressure on housing prices. The rental market is especially tight theses days and I wonder if that is partly due to the growth of short term rentals.
RVM: In the President’s State of the Union, he discussed civility. Do you feel as if Ashland politics and people already exhibit this?
JS: It’s interesting, even though Ashland residents have strong and varying opinions about many subjects, if you get them together in a room, to talk face to face, they usually are very civil and sometimes even congenial. Mix in social media and, often, a whole other side comes out, and I’ve seen examples of very uncivil behavior. This is something that concerns me but I don’t feel preaching or scolding is an appropriate way to do something about uncivil behaviors when it occurs. I spend a lot of time meeting in person with individuals and groups who are unhappy about various issues and I sometimes host gathering that are less formal and more informal than official public meetings.
RVM: How are you most optimistic about Ashland’s future?
JS: I have felt for years, and it’s borne out by facts, that this is an extraordinarily creative community, especially with regard to social ‘goods’ and services, e.g. the Food Project, the Hearth, You Have Options, etc. 2016, I believe, can be a year for really getting into changes that have needed to be made for years. We are all so lucky to live here we can, and should, make this a stronger, more resilient community that will be able to take advantage of opportunities to live harmoniously on this Earth and with each other.
RVM: Where are you most concerned?
JS: We’re under a lot of pressure these days with all the bad and frightening things happening in the world—and the stories about them. Our media increasingly exploit violence and chaos; this is a part of our social system that is really out of whack in my opinion. One consequence of this is that people are quick to blame and scapegoat and slow to inform themselves fully before passing judgment on others. It’s helpful to be self-aware as we negotiate these stressful but exciting times.