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Johnson's big shoes.

Byline: The Register-Guard

Eugene's City Charter vests an extraordinary amount of power in the office of the city manager. The city manager is the sole conduit through which the Eugene City Council can work its will. Bearing that fact in mind makes Jim Johnson's four-year tenure as city manager remarkable, and his retirement today raises apprehensions about the future.

Johnson's greatest success may have been in keeping himself from becoming the focus of the Eugene City Council's famous disagreements. His predecessor, Vicki Elmer, failed in that regard - she became the eye around which the hurricane of municipal politics swirled. So, ultimately, did Mike Gleason, who came before Elmer and survived as city manager for an unprecedented 15 years before leaving in a cloud of acrimony.

Elmore was fired, and a strong minority on the council wanted to fire Gleason toward the end of his tenure. No one on the council has called for Johnson's head. Indeed, nearly the only significant issue on which the council routinely agrees is that Johnson has done a good job. Johnson has showed a great talent for keeping the civic discussion centered on policies rather than on himself, and for providing strong leadership to the city staff without alienating council members who would prefer him to be leading it in some other direction.

How did he do it? Sherlock Holmes once solved a mystery by asking why the dog did not bark. In Eugene, there has been no barking at the city manager's office for telling lies. Neither Gleason nor Elmer were liars, but in some quarters they came to be suspected of filtering information to suit their own purposes. That hasn't been a problem for the past four years. Council members trust Johnson, whether they agree with him or not. His manner has a lot to do with that - he's calm, uses studiously neutral language and is almost preternaturally patient.

As a result, even a fractious City Council has been able to work with its city manager and get a lot done: a new library, a parks improvement and acquisition program, a new federal courthouse, the re-opening of Broadway and more. City finances are reasonably sound, downtown is on the verge of a renaissance, and the internal politics of city government have cooled from their rolling boil of the Elmer period.

The farthest-reaching event of the Johnson years was also the biggest disappointment - PeaceHealth's decision to build a new hospital away from its current location between downtown and the University of Oregon. It's not likely that any city manager could have brought about a different result.

The City Council now faces the difficult task of finding a replacement. The council can look to Johnson's tenure as an example of how the council-manager system is supposed to work, with the council setting policy and the manager executing it. Indeed, a strong manager can act as an essential buffer between a divided council and a city government that must answer to a single authority if it is to function effectively. The right manager will keep the policy arguments at the council level from creating warring factions within the municipal organization.

The council has a capable interim manager on hand in Jim Carlson. It can begin the search for a permanent replacement, but the hiring decision should be left to the council that will serve after the 2002 elections. That council will have to guide and work with the new manager. In addition, the best-qualified candidates would be reluctant to take a job knowing that the council's composition would change in unknown ways within a few months.

Johnson, for his part, can take pride in leaving a difficult position while people still wish he would stay, and for leaving city government in good shape.
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Title Annotation:Eugene's city manager walked a fine line; Editorials
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Feb 28, 2002
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