Mayor John J. Ash has no plans for an extended vacation or a fundamental lifestyle change when his 37-year career in city government ends this week.
Instead, after 18 straight election victories and an unbroken 25 years of service as an alderman and 12 years as mayor, the 66-year-old Ash will return to work in the family's dry-cleaning business (John Ash Cleaners) and intends to stay involved with the affairs and people of Olean.
Even as plans are being finalized to honor him at a testimonial dinner Jan. 10, Ash is staying hard on the trail of several unresolved issues.
In the final hours of the term, his administration is assisting in a property acquisition for expansion of the U.S. Postal Service's downtown facility. Ash earlier this year bucked the Common Council and refused to accept Postal Service plans to move the facility.
Ash also is planning to call an early January meeting of a panel named by Olean General Hospital's board of directors to help determine the future use of Wheeler House, a 150-year-old Portville home long occupied by hospital administrators.
The hospital board, embroiled in controversy after Wheeler House remodeling costs reached $650,000 and eager to put the matter to rest on the eve of an ambitious $30 million building project, in mid-December tapped Ash as a trusted leader who could steer the committee toward a solution to satisfy the community.
Ash, a Democrat, said he will retain several posts, including the city's Urban Renewal Agency, the Allegany/Cattaraugus Board of Cooperative Educational Services, the Salvation Army, the Olean City School District Planning Team and the Western New York Economic Development Group seat he has held since his appointment by former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo.
Last week as he received a Common Council award, he publicly reminded Mayor-elect Jim Griffin that he will be available for discussions. The Council set up the award in Ash's name to recognize annually an outstanding community member.
Ash said he has faith in Griffin's ability to lead the city but offered some advice to his successor:
"Be patient and listen. Before you make a decision make sure to the best of your knowledge that you have the proper information and that the choice you make is the best for your community."
Devotion to the community, humility and sensitivity are the attributes most often assigned by other city officials and co-workers when describing the diminutive, soft-spoken mayor. Though he often remained impassive during heated Common Council debates, Ash talks easily with constituents and is recognized everywhere in the city.
In November, he was honored by Greater Olean Inc. with the 1997 Love of Olean United in Enterprise (LOUIE) award for his contributions to the city and for his gentle influence.
Ash's approach to problem-solving often has included quietly appointing advisory committees to stimulate long-range discussion and solutions. His favorite, the Executive Forum, has regular meetings with business leaders to open lines of communication with the city and assist economic growth. Another, the Mosquito Task Force, conducted research and obtained permits for city application of alternative methods after many city residents objected to a county aerial pesticide spray program.
His administration spanned many changes in the city, including the establishment of the Cattaraugus Economic Development Zone and redevelopment of a brownfields area along a new street called Constitution Avenue.
But perhaps the most far-reaching accomplishment was voter approval of a modernized city charter written by a commission appointed by Ash. He then upset a strong challenge mounted in 1993 by Republican Jim Snyder and won the election, serving a final four-year term as the city's first full-time mayor under the new charter.
"The first four years (of the new charter) were definitely the toughest," he said. "The Council did not want to give up things that they were used to doing."
He had this advice for future aldermen: Let the mayor do his job as the city's chief executive officer.
As three aldermen mounted an unsuccessful attempt to reopen charter debate during a committee meeting last week, City Attorney John M. Hart urged the group to continue creating visionary policy and complete the successful transition begun by Ash.
"More and more aldermen are paying attention to the operational positions and deferring managerial things to the mayor," Hart said.
Ash pointed to a list of issues facing the city over the next 10 years, including airport development and replacement of the city's water filtration plant, stating he will truly miss his involvement and will step down with sadness.
"But it is a good time to end my career when we are able to maintain what we have," he said.