SLO City Council, a bizarre reality show

May 24, 2015
Councilman John Ashbaugh

Councilman John Ashbaugh


It was supposed to be a workshop about the San Luis Obispo City Council working together with an acceptable level of decorum. It turned into an eight-hour session with curses, yelling, threats to walk out and fist pounding on furniture by Councilman John Ashbaugh.

Behaviors were turning the Council’s work on city issues into some kind of embarrassing public display, Mayor Jan Marx said.

“The public is watching the City Council meetings like some bizarre reality show,” Marx said.

The Council brought in facilitator Trudy Sopp from the Centre for Organization Effectiveness in La Jolla. Before Thursday’s workshop, Sopp interviewed the city manager, city attorney and the five Council members. She also reviewed tapes of multiple meetings.

The majority of staff and Council member complaints were about Ashbaugh interrupting his fellow Council members and engaging in long-winded rants, she told the Council.

Following are some of the highlight of the eight-hour contentious workshop:

Sopp began by listed concerns from city staffers and Council members. Sopp offered Marx several suggestions for running an effective and efficient Council meetings including turning off Ashbaugh’s microphone as needed.

“Isn’t it like pompous?” Marx asked. “This is my turn to get roasted.”

Staff complained about Ashbaugh’s habit of asking question after question. That drew a reply from Ashbaugh that he was attempting to educate the public about issues before the Council. He said he was, after all, an educator.

But, Councilwoman Carlyn Christianson said that during presentations, Council members should focus on facts.

“Early questions should be about facts,” Christianson said “Even though this is between Marx and Ashbaugh, others are impacted.”

Marx offered a comment about the process.

“I call it arm wrestling,” Marx said.

SLO City Council

Jan Marx, John Ashbaugh, Dan Carpenter, Carlyn Christianson and Dan Rivoire

Sopp then suggested that Council members stop yelling during meetings in order to bring back decorum noting that most of the yelling, in the past, occurred during interruptions.

Ashbaugh replied that a raised voice was an effective means of getting a point across.

Marx did not agree.

“To me it is immature and really embarrassing,” Marx said.

Councilman Dan Carpenter responded by asking Ashbaugh to stop calling people names and using God’s name in vain during closed sessions.

“It happens in open session too, we have yelling and name calling,” Christianson said. “It is usually John.”

Sopp said that Ashbaugh’s interruptions and failures to stay on topic had led others, primarily Carpenter, to shut down during deliberations.

“There is a desire for Marx to keep things on topic,” Sopp said. “You guys have let this go on too long.”

Sopp then noted that Marx needed to take on a stronger role when heading meetings.

With the exception of Ashbaugh, Marx had worked well with the Council, she said.

“I’ve always had a very good time chairing meetings, except with this Council,” Marx said. “I end up dreading vice council most.

Vice Council Ashbaugh’s behaviors were not disruptive when then-Mayor Dave Romero was chair, she said.

“It feels to me like you are wrestling me for dominance,” Marx said to Ashbaugh. “You didn’t act that way with Dave Romero.”

“If I hear three simple words, ‘out of order,’ I will usually stop,” Asbaugh said

Carpenter said that Christianson had regularly tried to get Asbaugh to stop interrupting others, to no avail.

Ashbaugh slammed his fist on the table at that point.

“How do you know what will happen?” he yelled. “When I am argumentative, those three words would help.”

But Mayor Marx disagreed.

“I’ve done that in closed session,” Marx responded. “It didn’t work.”

Councilman Dan Rivoire said there need to be consequences when Ashbaugh violates the rules of order.

“When Mayor Marx says you are off topic, you need to stop,” Rivoire said to Ashbaugh.

“And I do,” Ashbaugh responded. The rest of the Council shook their heads, no, as the words left his mouth.

Sopp told Ashbaugh that she had timed his speeches and discovered he took 10 minutes to ask questions while the remaining Council members spoke for about one minute each.

Mayor Marx noted her long relationship with Ashbaugh and the problems he creates with interruptions and off-topic rants.

“This is especially frustrating because John and I have been friends for over 25 years,” Marx said.

Sopp asked Ashbaugh if he could subordinate the role of educator for the good of the Council.

“If I am out of order, I will stop speaking,” Ashbaugh replied. “I have my own relationship with all of you. I have no relationship with Carpenter, and I don’t want one.”

He then characterized the process as one designed to silence him

“It doesn’t matter, I am who I am and who I am will be a lot more quiet,” Ashbaugh said, adding, “What you are saying is ‘Ashbaugh shut up.’ “

City Attorney Christine Dietrick said that the staff and Council’s concerns were about the impact on public participation.

“We are trying to be helpful,” Dietrick said. “Our concern is that your delivery style is causing the public to disengage. We want to help you. This is not directed at a character flaw.”

Ashbaugh changed the subject by accusing Carpenter of asking to stay off several side committees and regional boards as a means of freeing up time to run for the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors. Ashbaugh then claimed Carpenter had announced his candidacy in January.

Carpenter explained that he had a personal issue in the fall that prompted his request and that he did not announce his candidacy until March. He said Ashbaugh’s allegations were untrue.

Ashbaugh responded by yelling, “Out of order.”

Sopp explained that out of order pertained to Council meetings and not the workshop.

Ashbaugh then jumped up from his seat saying he wasn’t going to take the “vicious attacks” anymore and he was leaving.

After several of his fellow Council members pleaded with him to stay, Ashbaugh sat back down and the topic turned to interruptions during Council deliberations.

“I need an example,” Ashbaugh said.

Carpenter described a discussion about land use when he spoke of three meetings and Ashbaugh interrupted claiming incorrectly that there had been only two meetings on the topic.

“We were both correct,” Ashbaugh said. “My reference was to the two meetings following the initial meeting. I wasn’t trying to dismiss Carpenter, I was trying to protect the Cultural Heritage Committee.”

“The point is that you were not recognized,” Carpenter said. “This is about your inability to control yourself.”

City Manager Katie Lichtig interceded.

“It is not about who is right,” Lichtig said. “We feel like we are having to intercede with two parents fighting.”

Mayor Marx counseled self-discipline.

“John, you have to be more restrained,” she said.

“It is taking all my ability to stay restrained right now,” Ashbaugh said, his voice raised.

Carpenter chided Ashbaugh about the need to conduct the workshop.

“We need to make agreements to use three words because you are acting like a child,” Carpenter said.

Ashbaugh looked over at Carpenter and said,” Out of order.”

Sopp told Ashbaugh again that “out of order” pertained only to Council meetings.

“I was being personally attacked in a most vicious way,” Ashbaugh replied.

Marx spoke out.

“You have been told at least four times and you are still not listening,” she said to Ashbaugh.

In the end, the Council agreed that when a member violates procedures and policy, Marx will either say out of order or call for a recess.

“I am extremely skeptical these rules will work,” Ashbaugh said.

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How horrible that the city council has to waste it’s time on something like this. Ashbaugh needs to go.


They all need to go, Lickit, Derrick, and the City Council~


They’re creepy and they’re kooky,

Mysterious and spooky,

They’re all together ooky,

SLO’s Council Family.

Their house is a museum

When people come to see ’em

They really are a scream

SLO’s Council Family.




So get a witches shawl on

A broomstick you can crawl on

We’re gonna pay a call on

The SLO Council Family

JB Bronson

The problem with a person like John Ashbaugh who can be clinically diagnosed as having a Narcissitic Personality Disorder, is that he enjoys the sound of his own voice, his soap box wherever he chooses to make it, and attention given him (narcissistic supply is the clinical term).

It appears his MO is to behave in ways that generate more attention to him, allowing him to respond and hear his voice, and the cycle repeats itself.

That the attention is negative does not register with Narcissists like this a.k.a. -Bruce Gibson.

It does not register with people like this, that we are not as impressed with them as they are of themselves.


Is it similar to the school bully, who is fine when everyone backs down from them but if just once someone stood up and put the bully in their place things might change? So we will have to wait to see if someone on the council stands up and put Ashbaugh in his place…. well I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for the mayor to stand up, it wont happen.


JB, have you considered that Mr. Ashbaugh’s difficulty may be that he has Aspergers? Lack of impulse control, failure to intuit appropriate group behavior and tendency to over focus on a particular topic are all Aspergers traits consistently displayed by Mr. Ashbaugh.

If this is correct, the choice to resolve the problem in a sort of group discussion, although it may be appropriate in many cases, is completely off the mark. Those who suffer from Aspergers are neurologically unable to read body language. Asking them to do so in a tense group setting is like asking someone without legs to walk. They will naturally become very frustrated because they can’t get it.

It doesn’t make it OK to fail to work within the group parameters, and it causes misery for all involved, so the problem needs to be addressed. The better way would be for someone Mr. Ashbaugh trusts and/or someone who understands Aspergers to talk with him to help him to grasp what behaviors will work better for him and what behaviors will not, and to provide him with tools to manage his difficulty with impulse control, and tendency not to know when to stop talking. He will never be able to read body language, but he can learn appropriate responses so that he can participate in a way that allows the group to benefit from his strengths.


You may well be right with respect to Mr Ashbaugh’s struggles.

However, this seems like a personal matter he needs to address on his own time and dollar, rather than the taxpayers being on the hook for John learning how to control himself.

At some point, and it seems he may well be there now, the negative ramifications of Ashbaugh’s behavior, and the impact on the remaining council may outweigh his contributions to the council.

In a calm moment, he should decide if his presence is doing more harm than good, and do what is best for the city.


Agreed that he may be better to address it on his own and making the point that it was also a misguided waste of time, money, and energy to handle it in a group session.


You have to admit for the council to address this “in public” and have people continue to talk about takes the spotlight away from any and all other problems/issues. The city manager and attorney will certainly get their raises now since everyone is talking about this issue instead on looking at the proposed raises


The scourge of “ASHheimers” is taking a serious toll on the SLO City Council.


Take the time to compare this reporting to that of the sanitized version in the Tribune a few days ago about the same meeting, and you will understand why this news site is burying the daily on a regular basis.


I had hoped that replacing the Tribune’s publisher would lead to an increase in the accuracy of its reporting. Sadly this has not been realized.


We elected him, we can un-elect him. We can attend a council meeting or not. The ones I feel sorry for is his students.


I feel sorry for Mr Ashbaugh, there must be something wrong with him, something physically wrong which leads to his mental instability.

I hope he gets the help he needs. Clearly, a kumbaya workshop is not the answer.


“Clearly, a kumbaya workshop is not the answer.”

Now who is being childish?


Mayor Marx having to tell Ashbaugh he’s out of order is like a parent telling a child to “use your words now, Johnny”. Is John going thru the “terrible two’s”?

Unbelievable behavior for elected officials.


It should be unbelievable behavior, unfortunately in this county (and this era) it’s not.

It’s in the minority although sometimes it doesn’t seem like it because the majority of us find it so petulant and offensive.


Thank you, thank you, thank you Karen for doing this report.

The real story, though, isn’t about a crazy council that can’t be nice to each other, it’s about a totally dysfunctional city, led by a dysfunctional out-of-town overpaid city manager whose nasty assault on our quality of life and whose giving everything that should belong to residents to the coddled business class goes on and on uninterrupted or even commented upon by 5 out to lunch council persons who have no clue what a city council is supposed to be doing.

This crew has driven this city to the dump, and dumps on residents every single week. No wonder people of repute are leaving town in droves, leaving a transient population in their place.

These elected officials deserve no respect.

I’m so glad somebody in the press is at last looking at what is without dispute the worst city council and the worst city government since the 1960s, when an earlier set of idiots refused to build Mission Plaza and wanted to put a parking garage there. Yes, the decisions being made today about the future of this city are just as bad as that example from the past.


One of your sentences confuses me, “These elected officials deserve no respect”, they deserve no respect but they continue to get elected, which must mean they are respected by the voters enough to get the most votes? right?


It could also indicate the voters are uninformed and simply vote for incumbents.


That covers the 40% that vote or at least a minimum 20.1% that do vote, (approximate), but what about the 60% that don’t vote, reason? uninformed about voting or informed and realize none of the candidates are worth a vote?


Regardless of the quality of candidates, one thing is certain, one or more of them will be elected. Informed voters are more likely to vote, even if it is a vote against the less desirable candidate.


When the senior center parking lot episode occurred, I took note. That really stood out to me. So, what we have today is not surprising but the progression of a ……..