Tim Johnson’s first challenge: Getting his feet under him

By Jayson Jacoby January 15, 2010 12:26 pm

I hope Tim Johnson has a pair of boots with sticky soles.

Or better yet, the new Baker City manager ought to buy a pair of those metal-studded rubber webs that you stretch tight over your footwear.

There’s still ice around despite the recent thaw, and it makes for treacherous going.

Of course that’s not the only sort of traction Johnson needs to worry about.

He is, after all, starting a job where he has seven bosses.

Which is six more than most of us have to try to please.

Besides which, three of those bosses — which is just one short of a ruling majority — didn’t even want to hire Johnson to run City Hall.

None of his several relatively recent predecessors, dating back 25 years or so, was picked by a City Council as divided as this current version seems to be.

The Council’s motion to offer Johnson the job on Dec. 18 played out almost precisely as did the motion, made on June 9, to fire Steve Brocato.

Councilors Dennis Dorrah, Beverly Calder, Aletha Bonebrake and Clair Button voted to hire Johnson — and to fire Brocato.

Councilors Andrew Bryan and Sam Bass voted against both motions.

The only difference was that Councilor Milo Pope, who voted no on the motion to fire Brocato, was absent from the Dec. 18 meeting. Pope did, however, write a letter to his fellow councilors in which he made it clear that had he been present he would have voted against the motion to hire Johnson.

Nonetheless, I don’t think Johnson’s situation is as tenuous as that 4-to-3 ratio implies.

If he does a good job I suspect he’ll soon gain the respect and support of even that trio of skeptical councilors.

Pope, for instance, told me: “I think Tim Johnson should succeed. I want him to succeed. I will help him succeed. I will not undermine him in any way.”

I expect no less from Pope or from any councilor. And I have no reason to believe that he, or any of his six colleagues, will fall short of my expectations.

A city manager’s position tends to be pretty precarious even in less volatile political circumstances.

Unlike many professions, city managers often have more trouble keeping a job than getting one.

Which is hardly surprising, when you think about it.

For one thing there is that matter of multiple bosses — bosses who change every two or four years depending on how the election turns out.

For another, city managers inevitably must answer “no” occasionally to business owners and developers and other people who are not accustomed to being denied anything.

And because city managers also tend to have forceful personalities, clashes are pretty much a certainty.

An investigator for the Idaho firm that the city hired to check Johnson’s background interviewed Johnson by telephone on Dec. 16.

The investigator wrote that he “found Johnson to be very boastful of his accomplishments and it was easy to see how he could be perceived as having an arrogant personality.”

The adjectives “boastful” and “arrogant” have negative connotations — either one fits neatly into a sentence right before, say, “jerk.”

But it seems to me that the difference is thin indeed between confidence, a quality which our society celebrates, and arrogance, which in the main we abhor.

And I’ve never met a city manager whose confidence wasn’t palpable.

Ultimately, I think that whatever disadvantage Johnson has due to the contention among the city councilors who will decide his future, is balanced by a couple of factors.

First, Johnson, unlike previous city managers, will have a contract that guarantees him severance pay.

A majority of the City Council can still fire him at any time, as per the city charter. Yet it seems to me that councilors will be less likely to make hasty decisions when they know that firing Johnson would cost the city thousands of dollars (in addition to the tab for the recruitment process).

Second, Johnson will be supervising a workforce that has proved itself capable of immense loyalty to its leader.

More than a dozen city employees attended the June 9 meeting during which the Council fired Brocato.

Several of those workers castigated councilors that night, and some of them later helped with the failed campaign to recall Calder and Dorrah.

Brocato’s critics contend that he in essence bought city employees’ loyalty by giving them exorbitant pay raises.

But I’ve looked at the numbers and the case seems to me a flimsy one.

Some workers who supported Brocato fared about the same, financially speaking, when Gordon Zimmerman was signing their paychecks.

Yet when the Council forced Zimmerman to resign in March 2003, there wasn’t, at least publicly, so much as a whimper of protest from City Hall.

I’ve not yet met Tim Johnson but I think it more likely than not that he’ll succeed here.

And I’m all but certain that he will, at the least, have a fair chance to prove himself worthy of his title.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.