Ashley Hicks started her tenure on the Roseburg City Council embroiled in controversy. She’s ending it the same way.
This time, Hicks is leveling charges that City Manager Nikki Messenger does not live within city limits, as her contract — and the city charter — require. Instead, Hicks says, Messenger bought an aging town home within the city that she claims is her residence, when she does not really live there.
Hicks maintains that Messenger really lives in a much larger home she owns outside of city limits in the Melrose area near the South Umpqua River. That four-bedroom, two-bath home, which sits on 2 acres, was built in 2000, covers 2,258 square feet and is worth $611,686, according to the county assessor.
The two-bedroom, 1½ bath town home located just north of the Garden Valley Shopping Center in Roseburg that Messenger lists as her residence was built in 1972, covers 1,296 square feet and is worth $161,414, according to the assessor.
Messenger bought the town home from her predecessor, Lance Colley, just over a year ago for $130,000. Colley paid $85,000 for it in 2013, county records show.
Colley, who was city manager for seven years before retiring in February 2019, also owned a home outside the city limits and, like Messenger, used the nearly 50-year-old town home to satisfy the residency requirement.
Hicks said the fact that Messenger and Colley used the same town home to establish residency when they didn’t live there amounts to “a history of fraud.”
“At this point in time I’m looking into hiring a private investigator and spending my own money to investigate,” Hicks said. “If she’s not living in that condo then she’s committing fraud, and there’s a history of fraud going back to Lance.”
Hicks said she is making an issue out of the residency requirement because it is important, even if not everyone sees it that way.
“She’s the highest paid employee in the city and she’s under a contract to live here. You can’t just breach contracts anytime you want because it’s convenient to you,” she said. “If they’re going to lie about this, what else are they lying about? That’s why it matters. There’s rules in place and the people in these positions have to follow those rules.”
Hicks also said City Recorder Amy Sowa told her the fact that Messenger had registered to vote at the Roseburg town home address is enough to satisfy the residency requirement.
But Hicks, pointing to state records showing Messenger used that address to vote, sees it differently.
“Casting a ballot at a residence that she doesn’t live at is a crime,” she said, adding that she is in the process of filing a formal complaint with state election officials.
Messenger declined to comment and referred questions to her attorney.
County records show that Messenger bought the Melrose area home in 2011, when she was the city’s public works director, which did not carry a residency requirement. She was appointed interim city manager in April 2019 and took over the job permanently on Sept. 1, 2019. She closed on the Roseburg town home she bought from Colley 37 days later.
Hicks brought up the housing issue at the Nov. 9 city council meeting. During the meeting, which was held via Zoom, Hicks said she was lodging a formal complaint against Messenger, alleging that she did not live within the city.
On a 6-1 vote, with Hicks alone voting for an investigation, the city council decided not to look into the matter.
“It would appear that we’re not interested in investigating this and we’re not going to. Thanks,” said City Council President Bob Cotterell, who was presiding over the meeting.
Hicks doubled down last week with an email she sent to local media. In it, Hicks laid out what she said were the facts regarding Messenger’s violation of the residency requirement, including details on the ownership of the town home by Messenger and Colley.
This is how Hicks ended the email:
“One of several scenarios is at play here:
Colley and Messenger just happen to have held the same position and purchased the SAME shit box townhouse FROM EACH OTHER and slept there 51 percent of the time. Unethical, probably. Technically compliant — I suppose.
Colley and Messenger just happen to have held the same position and purchased the SAME shit box townhouse FROM EACH OTHER and it sat empty for 7 years. Ethical — NOPE. Technically compliant: Hell NO!”
Cotterell and Mayor Larry Rich brushed aside Hicks’ complaint, saying it has no merit.
“Nikki does live within the city limits,” Rich said. “She bought a house in the city when she accepted the job. She is paying taxes to the city of Roseburg just like everyone else does who lives within the city limits. Since she kept her other house in the county, she is now paying taxes and mortgages on two houses. That’s not easy to do economically, but it demonstrates her dedication to the city of Roseburg.”
Cotterell concurred, saying Messenger had done everything required of her to meet the residency requirement.
“Nikki bought a condo in the city. If she sleeps there, she sleeps there. If she doesn’t she doesn’t,” he said. “Does she live in the city limits? Well she’s registered to vote here. She’s done everything the charter is designed to do.
“This is an entirely manufactured thing from Ashley. We’ve been over this. Councilor Hicks refused to take no for an answer, and at some point we just got tired of hearing from her,” he said.
Rich also acknowledged that he’s not a big fan of the residency requirement.
“It is in our charter, so we have to follow it unless we take it to the voters for a change,” he said. “I personally feel it is an unnecessary rule. We hire the best person possible for the job and expect that person to have the best interest in Roseburg at all times. Nikki was a great hire. We fully support her and appreciate all that she has done.”
Messenger’s contract calls for her to make $155,000 a year. She also gets five weeks’ vacation, 12 sick days a year, and $250 a month for gas allowance.
There is also a residency clause in the contract:
“Employee agrees to establish residency within the Roseburg city limits within six months of assuming her duties under this Agreement, unless the City Council agrees otherwise.”
Messenger grew up in Richland, Washington, but both of her parents graduated from Roseburg High School. She graduated from Washington State University in 1993 with a degree in mechanical engineering, and earned her professional engineering license in 2009.
Messenger began working for Roseburg in 1995 as an engineering technician, and quickly rose through the ranks of the Public Works Department. She spent a couple of years away from the city working for Roseburg-based MAP Engineering Inc. and Douglas County Public Works, before returning in 2006. She was promoted to public works director in 2008.
She took over as interim city manager in April 2019, and as permanent city manager in September of that year.
By all accounts, Messenger has done a solid job during her tenure as city manager. She has kept the city economy on an even keel despite the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus, and has been the guiding force in city council efforts — and more recently actions — to address the issue of homelessness in the area.
Hicks often takes a different approach.
She generated controversy even before she was elected to the City Council in November 2016. The former downtown Roseburg coffee shop owner had numerous run-ins with homeless communities, some of which Hicks recorded and posted on Facebook.
Hicks was the target of a brief recall petition in the summer of 2017 that fell short of the signatures needed. Spearheading the recall drive were homeless advocates who complained that Hicks’ public efforts to clean up riverfront camps were really meant to rid the area of homeless people.
During her tenure on the council Hicks’ provocative actions and comments have repeatedly raised the ire of her colleagues, who prefer a more orderly, managed approach. It is not uncommon for councilors to roll their eyes or shake their heads when they feel Hicks is belaboring a point or asking unnecessary questions.
Tensions boiled over at a council meeting this January when a dispute involving Hicks’ interactions with the public via social media — specifically her advocacy for a homeless shelter near the airport that the rest of the council disapproved of — led to calls for her censure.
Hicks was eventually sanctioned during a council meeting in February, losing her ability to travel on behalf of the council and being stripped of her chair position on the Historical Resource Review Commission. Hicks brushed aside the sanctions, calling them “a joke,” and said the other councilors were the ones who deserved to be sanctioned.
“Really, I’d like to make a complaint against everyone here,” she said at the time.
Hicks has also been openly critical of Messenger, accusing her of not doing enough to enforce the ordinances, such as trespassing, open container, public camping and public littering that are often associated with the homeless population. Hicks routinely sends email blasts to city officials and the media, often accompanied by photos or video showing violations of the ordinances, and blaming Messenger for not doing anything about the situation.
Tensions between Hicks and Messenger reached a head during Messenger’s performance evaluation in June; the City Council conducted it behind closed doors and all records of that discussion are sealed.
But according to Hicks, the meeting took a turn when Messenger said since she was being evaluated, she also had some evaluations she wanted to share. That’s when Hicks said Messenger “ambushed” her.
“She was talking about all sorts of crazy stuff,” Hicks said in an interview following the meeting. “She threatened a lawsuit and I told her to go ahead and do that. It was pretty intense.
“She gets the moon and the stars from City Council and then she wants to sue us because I’ve been too critical of her job performance,“ Hicks said.
Two months later, Messenger notified Roseburg of her intent to sue the city on several grounds, including gender discrimination, retaliation and defamation.
In a letter to city officials, Messenger leveled accusations against Hicks, accusing her of starting the legal morass with “actionable” comments and social media posts.
In November, Hicks ran for re-election to defend her Ward 4, Position 2 seat; she was defeated by political newcomer Patrice Spiros, who won 57% of the vote. Hicks said she felt like she was not only running against Spiros but other members of the city council, including the mayor, who Hicks said was helping Spiros put her campaign signs out.
Hicks’ last city council meeting is scheduled for Dec. 14. Her last official day in office is Dec. 31.
Cotterell, who has been unsparing in his criticism of Hicks — at the Nov. 9 council meeting held via Zoom he had her audio cut off three times and threatened to have her removed from the discussion — is not shedding any tears at her departure.
“She is a vile, disgusting, rude person,” he said. “She’s not right. I’m 25 years a cop, and she’s not right.”
For her part, Hicks acknowledges her defeat stung, but said she’s glad to have a break after being involved in local politics for nearly a decade. She also said that this current embroilment is not any kind of parting shot, but rather an effort to end her tenure by doing what’s right.
“I consider this clearing out my desk, taking care of unfinished business,” Hicks said. “I think it’s important to a lot of people to find out if someone who is running your city is playing by the rules. If they’re not, how do you know they’re not doing it with other things too?”