Johnson City Commission to make report on complaint against city manager public Wednesday

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Commissioners say they’ll address communication, leadership issues in Pete Peterson’s performance review

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — An outside investigation into an employee’s formal complaint against Johnson City City Manager Pete Peterson found the longtime leader’s “berating, unprofessional and coarse conduct” significantly impacted not just the complainant but other employees.

That was the assessment of commissioner Jenny Brock, who was mayor when the investigation began, during a called meeting to discuss the report Tuesday.

The findings from Knoxville attorney Benjamin Lauderback will play an important role in the commission’s performance review of Peterson, which has been on hold during the investigative process. Commissioners also opted to make the report public and post it on the city’s website by 2 p.m. Wednesday to afford Peterson and fire prevention officer Roger Davis, the complainant, time to review it.

Commissioners spent about 20 minutes in an open meeting following a closed executive session during which they reviewed the report with their attorney, Erick Herrin. At then-mayor Brock’s behest, Herrin sought outside counsel to review Davis’s complaints, which are outlined in a story published Nov. 18 by News Channel 11.

In prepared comments that were the most extensive of any commissioner’s during the meeting, Brock found time to laud much of Peterson’s work in helping lead Johnson City to become a desirous place to live with a high quality of life.

Those accolades, though were sandwiched by a condemnation of the actions, primarily in the form of emails, he took surrounding an issue dealing with housing homeless COVID patients at the former Ashe Street Courthouse.

Davis responded to concerns raised by his own boss, Fire Chief James Stables, about potential life safety issues. Peterson essentially blew up at Davis in a series of emails after Davis’s suggestion that the city check with the state about a temporary permit.

An email from Fire Chief James Stables asking for opinions on the Ashe Street courthouse usage.

Stables has since resigned to take a job in Florida.

Brock said Peterson’s interactions with Davis — even if his intent was to avoid red tape during a crisis situation — represented the antithesis of respect, the third of four guiding principles the city commission adopted last year.

“Clearly from attorney Lauderback’s findings and documented emails, City Manager Peterson was neither a role model for many of these principles or showed leadership in working through the issues presented in the Ashe Street Courthouse transaction,” Brock said.

“The impact on Mr. Davis and other employees from Mr. Peterson’s berating, unprofessional and coarse manner was significant,” she added.

Any consequences for behavior that new Mayor Joe Wise called in a post-meeting interview “not an appropriate or professional way to communicate with anybody” will await Peterson’s performance review.

Wise said Davis raised “significant concerns” and that the report coming out his formal complaint “puts more nuance and context on the subject matter” of the review’s leadership and communication sections.

Wise said he wants that process, which includes a broad matrix of job performance areas, to be complete in January.

“Just because this particular report doesn’t become an agenda item and an action an item and a resolution or something like that doesn’t mean it isn’t very much part of shaping the future and priorities of the city commission moving forward,” Wise said.

For her part, Brock called the report from Lauderback “an eye-opener,” with feedback from roughly 20 employees that can help the commission learn how to help mold a better city, better administration and better commission.

And while it may be quiet, Brock said scrutiny will be upon the commission in the coming weeks.

“All the employees of the organization are going to be watching how we’ve handled this situation.”

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