JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – A nuts and bolts engineer who’s also a certified mediator is likely a rare breed, but that’s what Johnson City leaders say they’ve found in Cathy Ball, their unanimous pick to succeed longtime City Manager Pete Peterson.
“I’m excited not because she’s an engineer, not because she’s been an assistant city manager, but because I believe she has the communication and negotiation skills necessary to really bring out the best in a team,” Mayor Joe Wise said Thursday morning just after commissioners voted 5-0 to offer Ball the position.
Wise said he believes Ball’s skills leave her well-placed for “supporting our current employees, but also in my view, raising the level of corporate culture. Enhancing the environment of problem-solving, enhancing the environment and collaboration.”
If she accepts the jobs after terms are negotiated, Wise said Ball could start within the next couple of months. Peterson, who has been city manager since 2005, will officially retire at the end of this year.
During and after Thursday’s brief meeting, commissioners were consistent in their praise of Ball, who was one of five finalists after a national search. Those five candidates spent a couple of days here earlier in the week, touring the city, meeting dozens of employees and citizens and interviewing even more intensively with commissioners.
“I think we have found a candidate who is going to be an absolute match and fit for Johnson City, and I am excited to make this motion that we extend this offer to Cathy Ball as our next city manager,” former mayor Jenny Brock said in making the motion to offer Ball the job.
Commissioner John Hunter said while all five finalists were “exceptional,” Ball “really understood our community, our needs and really had a vision as to how to address those.
“She knows the things that work and don’t work for a community like ours that’s growing.”
Earlier this week, Ball told News Channel 11 she had the experience to become a city manager near where she grew up and in the city where she began her first job.
“I’m ready to become a city manager, and I can’t think of a better place to start than what I consider to be my hometown,” Ball said.
Cathy Ball’s background:
- Grew up in Erwin
- Bachelor’s in civil engineering (Tennessee Tech), masters in public administration (Western Carolina University)
- Assistant City Engineer, Greenville, S.C. (1988-1997)
- City Engineer, Asheville, N.C. (1997-2009)
- Public Works Director, Asheville (2009-present)
- Assistant City Manager, Asheville (2013-present)
With growth expected, Ball’s ‘budgets to bridges’ background a key
Wise and Brock both said Johnson City is on a growth trajectory that will make Ball’s nuts and bolts experience important to avoid missteps and make the most of opportunities.
“That’s what I like about her background,” Wise said. “Really, when you look at the range of services from bridges to budgets that a city gets involved in, she has the background and experience and exposure to those kinds of projects and challenges that I think will allow her to hit the ground running when she gets to Johnson City.”
Brock said that experience has come in a fast-growing city. Asheville has seen its population increase by 37% since 2000, from 68,889 to 94,589. Johnson City’s population has grown by 28% during the same period, from 55,469 to 71,046.
“Asheville has grown very fast, very quickly and I think she understands and can help us with those pitfalls,” Brock said.
“I think Johnson City is probably going to grow in the near future, but we can address those things. We don’t want growth to outpace infrastructure in our city. I think she’s going to be just the person – the balance of experiences to be able to help guide that.”
Wise said an immediate opportunity will come as the city embarks on its $30 million makeover of the West Walnut Street corridor between East Tennessee State University and downtown.
Wise said the project will “be disruptive for a season.
“I think having somebody who has the professional expertise and experience doing those sorts of big comprehensive projects is going to be valuable to us and to the citizens who are most directly impacted.”
Ball said during her News Channel 11 interview the downtown is a draw for her.
“I think it’s a beautiful city,” she said. “I’m extremely impressed at the investment the city has made in downtown. I think healthy downtowns help, not only the city but the region. I can’t say enough good things about where I think Johnson City is heading, and I want to be a part of it.”
‘Opportunity’ awaits for culture change after long Peterson tenure
City commissioners have raised the issue of the city’s “culture” — including issues of business-friendliness and a well-publicized incident involving Peterson and an exchange with a fire department manager — several times over the past couple of years.
Thursday, Wise said while he didn’t see those or any other areas of the city’s current management as “weaknesses,” he said when organizations have long-standing management structures “you have a level of stability that is both a blessing and a curse.”
Ball will have “opportunities for improvement that got missed because there weren’t fresh eyes,” Wise said.
After she’s settled in, Wise expects Ball to “figure out how things are working now and then begin to think through next steps. Best management advice I ever had was don’t break it until you know how it was working.”
Wise said the city has great employees that want to do their best – and that Ball has a skill set that can maximize that.
“I think Cathy has the unique skills to create an environment that encourages and brings that out.”
Ball spoke of her leadership style earlier this week.
“I think my passion about leadership and local government is the biggest thing I will bring to Johnson City,” she said.
“It seems like, from my visit, there’s an incredibly great staff here, and I’m looking forward to potentially being able to be the city manager here as a leader.”
Brock said Ball is a certified mediator and volunteers at Asheville’s mediation center.
“One of the things she said to me is that you have to interact with people where they are,” Brock said. “I think she’s a good reader of people and understands maybe the barriers some people have as they’re working through issues, and that’s where she goes. It’s very effective. I know the employees were extremely supportive of her.”
That said, with her engineering background and three-plus decades of experience in city government, Ball’s approach is well-rounded, Brock said.
“She is a very people person,” Brock said. “But, with the training and skills she has as a civil engineer, she can talk with anybody about any kind of thing that we have going on in the city. She speaks the language of construction and building and all the things we do so much of in the city.”
She said some of the nuts and bolts will center around land use and comprehensive planning as the city does grow, particularly with annexation limited by state law.
“Where would be best places to try and shift some of that development – making sure we have the infrastructure in place for that. If not, that’s where we start targeting. So, that’s going to be a big piece, and I think that’s right in her wheelhouse.”
That could involve more density around the city’s core, Brock said, through the pursuit of infill projects.
“That’s been our strategy all along, and you see neighborhoods where there’s infill, particularly near the downtown area,” she said.
“But again, the infrastructure has to go around with it. We can’t let growth outpace infrastructure. That’s when you get into trouble and people get really mad at you and call to say ‘We’re sitting in gridlock.’ That’s going to be really, certainly in our mind’s eye, as we move forward in this really opportunity phase for the city.”
That phase will likely include the opportunity for Ball to remake her team at the top. Wise said eight department heads are at or near retirement eligibility.
“It’s not a fix what’s broken as much as identify that there are people in positions that are nearing the end of their careers here, and we need to make sure that when we fill those positions, we’re doing more than just putting people in positions, but we’re building a team that works well together,” Wise said.
He said he hopes one outcome will be a sense that Johnson City is more “customer-friendly,” and that employees see part of their mission as contributing to that.
“Could we be streamlining the process for citizens, customers and stakeholders? Could we be rethinking how we do things so that everybody in every department recognizes, I am the face of Johnson City, and while it may be my job to run a sanitation or recycling truck and somebody else’s job is to do codes or be a first responder in the fire department, we’re all on the same team or we’re all advancing what is the same high-level mission of the city.”
Brock said she got the sense Ball would “be with us as long as the job is moving in the right direction.
“I do know she has a high school-aged daughter who plays basketball. So, she’s really excited,” Brock said. “I think her daughter was already at basketball camp with the Science Hill girls a couple of weeks ago.”
An avid student of the suffragette movement, Brock said she’s pleased that Johnson City is getting its first female city manager, but that Ball’s sex had no bearing on the decision.
“She was the most qualified and experienced person,” Brock said. “She is an amazing leader and communicator and that really excites me. She just happens to be a woman and that’s great.
“It will be a first for the city, so it’s a pretty historic day for Johnson City. What she brings to the table and the experiences and successes she’s had in previous jobs just shines through in not only her as a person, but references and just the things that she’s done.”