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Lawsuits against Ashland parks department highlight lack of oversight

A woman wearing a quarter-zip fleece and sunglasses stands on a covered porch, with her hands on the wooden railing looking to the right with a straight face
Roman Battaglia
Jefferson Public Radio
Laura Chancellor, former employee at the Ashland Parks & Recreation Department, at her home in Sams Valley in April 2023

Multiple women have come forward in recent years describing a culture of harassment and bullying in the Ashland Parks and Recreation Department. Recent lawsuits put a spotlight on the nature of this unique city institution.

Laura Chancellor was the superintendent of the Oak Knoll Golf Course in Ashland until last June, when she quit her job after filing a lawsuit last year against the Ashland parks department.

Her suit individually names what she calls “The Four Horsemen,” a group of coworkers and friends including the department’s director, Michael Black.

“They do no wrong,” she said. “They do whatever they want because they have Michael on their side.”

In the February 2022 complaint, Chancellor said when one of the members of the group was first hired in 2011, he’d say things including “homosexuals should be hung on the cross and burned.” Chancellor identifies as lesbian.

"I just kept trying to trudge forward thinking ‘Okay, this is gonna get better, it’s gonna get better.’ It just kept getting worse.”

She said another member of this so-called “boy’s club” would complain when new women were hired.

“He had a female employee working for him and he gave her to me,” Chancellor said. “His words to me were, ‘We can’t be ourselves when she’s around.’”

Chancellor is the latest former employee to sue the Ashland parks department. She’s seeking almost $1 million for alleged harassment, sexism and bullying throughout much of her time in Ashland.

“It’s very stressful, it’s caused me some severe anxiety to get through this,” Chancellor said. “Because it was 19 years, I just kept trying to trudge forward thinking ‘Okay, this is gonna get better, it’s gonna get better.’ It just kept getting worse.”

Ashland Parks Director Michael Black declined to speak for this story and did not reply to a subsequent email outlining the reporting in this story and requesting comment.

Chancellor said when Black was hired in 2014, he allowed harassment to continue unchecked.

She said her job paid well, and she didn’t want to quit because her coworkers were bullying her. She wanted leadership to fix things.

A woman with grey hair wearing a blue jacket, holding a fork and smiling at the camera
Ann Thayer
Ann Thayer, former employee at the Ashland Parks department

Jill Mullen-Feely was also mentioned in Chancellor’s original lawsuit filing. Mullen-Feely was hired in 2014. The complaint said she was going to file a grievance against one of the members of the “boys club,” but she got sick and passed away before she could.

“They would say things about Jill and me,” Chancellor said. “Because when Jill was alive she was a lesbian also and she worked in forestry. She just kept her head down and stayed away from them.”

Ann Thayer is another former employee at the department. She started as an intern in 1999 and eventually took over as the city’s horticulturist.

“My supervisor, he explained to me and said in these words, ‘The tendency for the crew is to dismiss women as they are not qualified to make decisions despite their qualifications,’” Thayer said.

Thayer said she quit her job after 15 years because of systemic bullying and sexism she faced at work. When she complained to higher ups, she said, she was sent to the nature center where only other women worked.

Neither Thayer nor Chancellor ever filed a formal complaint with the city’s human resources department because they said they believed it wouldn’t help. Chancellor said her visits with the city’s HR director weren’t productive.

“I was told, when I came in the last time to complain about Michael and the “boys club,” I was told if I didn’t like it, I should look for another job,” Chancellor said.

Lack of oversight in the department

Ashlanders are fiercely protective of their parks. The city created the elected parks commission in 1908, independent of the mayor and city council. The commission controls its own finances, staffing and park lands in Ashland.

That decision in the early 1900s insulated the parks department from oversight by the rest of the city government.

Cathy Shaw was the first female mayor of Ashland and served three terms throughout the 1990s. She’s been a strong supporter of the parks commission, which she said was designed to protect the parks from interference.

A woman wearing a brown trench coat with grey hair leans on a rock retaining wall and looks to the distance on the left.
Roman Battaglia
Jefferson Public Radio
Cathy Shaw, the first female mayor of Ashland, in Lithia Park, April 2023

“Let’s say, for example, if Ashland fell on very difficult times financially—some are saying we are now, I don’t know if we are or not—they’re not gonna cut police or fire or streets or water. The first thing that’ll be cut are Ashland’s parks,” Shaw said.

When Shaw was mayor, she passed the city’s special tax on prepared foods as a way to raise money to buy more land for parks.

This separation of oversight in the parks department from the rest of the city has enabled the harassment to take place, according to Christine Dodson, the former program director of the senior center which is part of the department. She said parks commissioners keep Director Michael Black in power despite claims of harassment.

“It’s because he does what they want, I think,” said Dodson. “And he caters to them.”

Dodson sued the parks department in 2018 over claims of wrongful termination and defamation. Dodson started working for the City of Ashland in 2003 as a senior program outreach specialist. She took over as the senior program director in 2007.

In her legal complaint, Dodson said she always received high praise and excellent scores on performance reviews until around June 2015, when the city told Dodson they’d made a mistake with her payroll and had been underpaying her for eight years.

Instead of offering her back pay, Dodson said Black offered one week of extra vacation time. She hired a lawyer and after months of negotiation reached an agreement with the city, according to the lawsuit.

In August 2017, Dodson was told she and the rest of the paid senior program staff were being laid off to accomplish a planned department reorganization.

Dodson’s lawsuit argued Commissioner Michael Gardiner was pushing Black to fire her.

She then began legal proceedings and eventually settled the lawsuit with the city for $538,000.

Taxpayers don’t directly pay for the costs of lawsuits. The city is insured by Citycounty Insurance Services, or CIS, an insurance group formed by Oregon’s cities and counties.

Following Chancellor’s lawsuit being filed in 2022, CIS told Ashland they were mandating an additional $100,000 liability insurance deductible for employment-related claims.

According to a 2022 memo from the city’s interim financial officer Sabrina Cotta, this new mandate was because of the parks department's unique level of autonomy.

CIS said this means they need to be prepared to defend both the city and the parks department with separate legal counsel when faced with employment-related lawsuits.

In the memo, CIS said there were previous legal claims that were more expensive to manage because of this unique autonomy of the parks department, and they see the current model as more risky and problematic.

Because the city won’t comment on ongoing legal matters, it’s unknown if Laura Chancellor’s lawsuit would count as an employment related claim, and if the city would have to pay the $100,000 deductible before CIS steps in to pay for damages or a settlement. Chancellor’s lawyer, Tom Dimitri, said he suspects that’s the case.

Attempts to change the commission

Voters recently had an opportunity to change the way the parks department was managed.

A November ballot measure brought forward by City Manager Joe Lessard would have turned over staffing responsibilities for the parks department to the city. But voters upheld the parks commission’s powers by an almost two-to-one margin.

Dodson said the campaign against the ballot measure was strong, with some residents alleging the city manager was trying to ruin the parks department.

Lessard and the City of Ashland also declined to speak for this story, citing ongoing litigation.

Now that she’s working in Washington State, Ann Thayer said she’s never seen a city use the same independent parks commission model like Ashland does.

“The City of Ashland is very small,” she said. “It kind of surprises me that they have this model in effect.”

Thayer said many residents are resistant to folding the parks department back into the city.

“I think they’re really stuck in this—that it’s always been this way,” Thayer said. “It just doesn’t make sense to separate them when you have HR that’s supposed to represent the whole city and parks.”

Four out of the five parks commissioners did not respond to a request for comment. In an email, Parks Commissioner Rick Landt declined to be interviewed, citing the litigation, but offered a statement, “I and Ashland Parks & Recreation Commission are committed to a welcoming and supporting workplace for all employees.”

Defending the parks commission

A women with her back to camera, wearing a dark brown/green trench coat walks down a path into a park, with bushes and trees around her
Roman Battaglia
Jefferson Public Radio
Cathy Shaw in Lithia Park, April 2023

Former Mayor Cathy Shaw said her conversations with the parks director and the commissioners have always been respectful. She added the commissioners are elected just like the city council.

“These are hardworking people that believe in what they’re doing, and are doing what we want them to do, what the city council has asked them to do or the voters have asked them to do through the ballot box,” Shaw said.

While Shaw doesn’t currently allege she experienced harassment from parks department staff, she said she faced sexism from other city workers while she was mayor.

“I remember one police officer,” she said. “We were meeting about something and he put his hand on my leg. I was really taken aback. And I just looked at his hand and I looked at him, didn’t say a word and he removed it. It was just really inappropriate, dude.”

Shaw said her experience as mayor was different from regular employees. She said she never saw the benefit of calling attention to sexism.

“If somebody felt that they were being singled out because of gender or sexual orientation, I would urge them, say something if it bothers you,” she said. “It didn’t bother me, clearly, in the way that it’s probably bothering some others.”

Hopeful for change

The employee manual for the parks department includes a non-discrimination policy. If harassment does happen, managers are required to take immediate action, including following up to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Laura Chancellor said she’s suing the city because she wants the parks department to be held accountable.

“I have hope that, when they hire the next woman, there’s an opportunity for her to stay here and be successful,” she said. “I have hope that they will abide by their rules in their employee handbook that clearly stipulates harassment, discrimination of sexual orientation, all those things will be followed; they followed none of them.”

Voters in Ashland are making more decisions about the future of the parks department in a May 16 special election.

This time, it’s about funding. The city council is asking voters to consider committing all of the money from the city’s special tax on prepared foods to the parks department. That tax brings in around $2-3 million annually. Right now, the department only gets around a quarter of that money.

A woman with shoulder-length hair and a green quarter-zip sweater stands in the foreground and looks into the distance on the right. The background is full of forested hills
Roman Battaglia
Jefferson Public Radio
Laura Chancellor at her home in Sams Valley, April 2023

Ballot measure 15-214 would also extend the food and beverage tax through 2040.

But, passing that measure doesn’t mean the parks department would get more money. According to Ashland Mayor Tonya Graham, any increase in funding for the department through the tax would be offset by a decrease from the city’s general fund.

Some think of Ashland as a progressive town. Laura Chancellor said the culture of the parks department doesn’t fit that reputation.

“I just think that they have an underlying problem that’s making them look bad, to be honest with you,” Chancellor said. “They teach and they preach equality. And to have a situation with one of their biggest entities, it puts a black eye on them, in my opinion.”

Chancellor hopes her lawsuit will show the city it needs to make things better for employees if it wants to live up to Ashland’s values.

Correction: a previous version of this story referenced several additional unnamed individuals describing harassment within the Ashland parks department. That unsubstantiated reference has been removed. The phrase “pattern of lawsuits” has also been changed in the headline.

Roman Battaglia is a regional reporter for Jefferson Public Radio. After graduating from Oregon State University, Roman came to JPR as part of the Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism in 2019. He then joined Delaware Public Media as a Report For America fellow before returning to the JPR newsroom.