By Gary Gray
City Manager Pete Peterson will hand over to a third assistant city manager the detailed day-to-day oversight of Johnson City’s 25 departments to instead focus on the city’s long term strategic needs, such as economic development and other overarching issues.
A third assistant city manager is budgeted for fiscal 2018 and will soon be hired to fill that void. Johnson City commissioners — the city manager’s collective supervisor — made it clear in Peterson’s fiscal 2016 evaluation they wanted a shift in his priorities.
Of 10 basic categories, Peterson scored his lowest mark — a 2.8 on a 1-to-5 scale — on “ability to manage.” His overall average rating was 3.4, meaning he did garner high marks in other categories. He consistently has been applauded for his leadership and communication abilities, budget preparation and knowledge and patient and empathetic management style.
“One thing that has come up in my evaluation over the years is that I get too involved in operations,” Peterson said. “It takes a lot of time to manage the departments, which involves weekly meetings and answering inquiries, both by the public and department heads, signing payroll and so on. It will take some reports away from me, but it will free me up to spend more time with economic groups.”
The $245 million 2018 budget, which is now in its second reading, includes a salary between $85,000 and $120,000 for the new hire. The position will be publicly advertised when the budget is approved. The Human Resources Department will head the search, and a team of administrators will join in and review possible recruits. Peterson said city staff want to make the hire by Oct. 1.
In 2000, Johnson City had a city manager, three assistant city managers, an assistant to the city manager and a special projects position. An economic downturn melted away the administrative layers, leaving only Peterson. As activity picked up, Charlie Stahl and Bob Wilson were brought on as assistant city managers. Stahl largely handles operations, while Wilson concentrates on financials.
“I absolutely support it,” said Vice Mayor Jenny Brock. “We’ve been talking with Pete now for years about this. He has a huge portfolio. We want him to do more of the strategic part. He normally spends a couple days a week in Nashville, and we want him to stay in the loop on various issues.”
Mayor David Tomita — at the time a commissioner — gave Peterson low marks for “delegating appropriate time for strategic leadership.” Brock stated that the city manager “continues to be deeply involved in the day-to-day operation of the city,” but commissioners want him to “focus on strategic planning, business development and fostering relationships in the business, educational and medical communities.”
Commissioner and former Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin cited a need for a better flow of information from Peterson to commissioners about requests from department heads. Van Brocklin also called for a more comprehensive preparation for the future.
“The case can be made that it is not the city manager’s responsibility to set a series of long-term goals for the community, instead that it is the responsibility of the City Commission,” he said. “And, that is true. However, with each commissioner having other occupations that take us from a full-time consideration of community needs, it would be useful to have a city manager who more fully and consistently focuses on the City Commission in the areas of long-term development of the community.”
While these comments demonstrate a consensus regarding a want for strategic planning, the evaluation contained extremely complimentary remarks. Brock, Tomita, Van Brocklin, as well as former mayors Clayton Stout and Jeff Banyas, had high praise for Peterson’s leadership abilities, budgeting prowess, creativity, staff support, knowledge and professionalism.
Todd Fowler and Joe Wise — both elected to the City Commission in November — may only have about six months under their belts, but they have been quick studies of the workings of city government. Neither has been idle in their actions nor observations.
“We’ve discussed a lot over the last couple of months,” Fowler said. “We’ve been speaking with previous commissioners, and we know we’re trying to keep 25 departments running. The evaluation reflected that Mr. Peterson tries to do too much of these things (day-to-day departmental matters), and doesn’t let go of some of these things. I think the hiring of a third assistant city manager was meant to free him up some more, and I’m beginning to understand now that I’m six months into this.”
“My inclination is to support an additional assistant city manager,” Wise said. “It will create space and escalate Mr. Peterson’s priorities toward the big picture — strategic leadership that is critical to our success.”