While a deal hasn’t been formally struck, the City Council offered Johnson the opportunity Wednesday to be Anniston’s next city manager.
Johnson said he shares the vision others have of Anniston as having a vibrant downtown, a redeveloped McClellan and cleaned-up neighborhoods now suffering from blight.
But he also has a vision for how a Brian Johnson administration would function within City Hall.
“The mundane, day-to-day stuff, I find it personally offensive when I allow that kind of stuff to leak past me to my elected officials,” he said. “I have failed because now they are burdened with things that are my responsibility.”
The city manager oversees the day-to-day operations of the city, including more than 300 employees and a budget of roughly $35 million.
Johnson said he sees his job as ensuring the city staff is cohesive and working as a team so that the elected officials don’t have to worry about those details and can spend time on bigger issues and vision for the city.
Elected officials in Anniston have crossed a legal line into the city’s day-to-day business before, with council members suffering consequences. For example, state law prohibits Anniston council members from directing city staff, but in November 2011, Councilman John Spain was charged with giving an order to a police officer. Prosecutors decided not to pursue charges in December after Spain resigned. In July 2012, Councilman Ben Little was charged with giving an order to a public works employee; he was convicted in November. By that time, Little had already lost a re-election bid, but he appealed the verdict to circuit court, and the case is still pending.
The City Council voted 3-2 at a special meeting Wednesday afternoon to offer a contract to Johnson, the current city manager of Garden City, Ga.
“We need a game-changer,” said Mayor Vaughn Stewart. “We need someone who can come in and be an agent of change. I think Brian Johnson fits that bill.”
Councilman Jay Jenkins added that Johnson seems more dynamic and willing to take risks.
Councilwoman Millie Harris concurred, saying that she felt Johnson was a “mover and a shaker” and liked how easily he related with city staff.
“I’m honored that this offer has been extended to me,” Johnson said by phone as he drove to the airport. “It was a very revealing, insightful experience today. There’s no doubt that community has a bunch of people that really care about what’s going in the community from the elected officials on down.”
Councilmen David Reddick and Seyram Selase preferred Gerald Smith, who visited Anniston and interviewed with the council Monday, citing his two decades of experience as a key factor.
Selase said that with the entire council being so new, he felt Smith’s vast experience as a city administrator tipped the scale in his favor. But he also said he felt the council couldn’t go wrong with either candidate and felt comfortable with the council’s decision today.
Although he voted for Smith, Reddick said he liked the fact that Johnson is willing to own mistakes and problems arising from day-to-day operations at City Hall.
Before he can accept, Johnson said, two important things have to happen: He has to bring his wife to town to get a feel for the community, and he has to see the contract. When the city advertised the position for the second time, it raised the annual salary range to between $90,000 and $150,000.
“Sometimes the devil’s in the details,” Johnson said.
Johnson has more than six years’ experience as city manager of Garden City, a city of about 10,000 just outside Savannah. Before entering local government, Johnson spent about a decade in the military, first in the Navy then the Army. He said he discovered his love of local government when he was tasked with building local government in a community outside of Baghdad after the invasion of Iraq.
During his interview with the council, Johnson said if he accepted an offer from the city, he would likely be able to start within 30 days. Current City Manager Don Hoyt is set to retire at month’s end.
Johnson said he liked the fact that he didn’t find anyone averse to change when he visited Anniston Wednesday, but rather found a “stable full of community stakeholders” who seem ready to join him if he comes to Anniston and rolls up his sleeves to get things done.
“Everyone is like, ‘Yes, it is time for us to make some big-boy and big-girl decisions and to be really progressive and creative.’”
Staff writer Paige Rentz: 256-235-3564. On Twitter @PRentz_Star.