Editorial | Johnstown needs a city manager with long-term commitment (2024)

In 2021, when Daniel Penatzer signed a contract to be Johnstown’s interim city manager for the next nine months, he correctly said: “It’s very difficult to run a city this size when the faces keep changing.”

Penatzer at the time said his main priority was bringing stability to a city manager job that then had been held by eight people – Carlos Gunby, Melissa Komar, Arch Liston, Curt Davis, George Hayfield, Robert Ritter, John Trant Jr. and Penatzer himself – in less than seven years.

“My focus is going to be on introducing some continuity to the manager’s position,” he told our Dave Sutor, and added that he hoped he would be “the last in a long line of temporary, interim, acting managers. … If we don’t have this position filled and some consistency to it by the end of the year, I’ll be very disappointed. I won’t have succeeded. I’ll be very disappointed.”

It now appears, through no fault of Penatzer’s, that he did not succeed.

His brief tenure as Johnstown’s top administrator was characterized by a contentious but ultimately successful effort to repeal the requirement that the city manager live within the city limits.

That allowed the hiring of Ethan Imhoff, of Hollidaysburg, as city manager in January 2022. Imhoff had been the executive director of the Cambria County Planning Commission.

Imhoff was at the helm as Johnstown exited the state’s Act 47 program for financially distressed municipalities, developed plans for an overhaul of downtown’s Main Street and Central Park, and distributed millions of dollars in COVID-19 pandemic relief.

He got a new two-year contract in January and at the time sounded the kind of tone that Penatzer likely had in mind, saying: “I appreciate council’s commitment to me, and certainly looking forward to continuing our work together.”

But now Imhoff is about to depart Johnstown to take the borough manager’s job in his Blair County hometown. He gave his 60-day notice April 17.

“We were caught off-guard completely with Ethan’s resignation,” Mayor Frank Janakovic told our Russ O’Reilly at the time.

As they consider a replacement for Imhoff, the members of Johnstown City Council absolutely must not let his departure trigger a slide back to the old days of the mid- to late 2010s.

The council has taken a good first step by naming Komar and city fire Chief Robert Statler acting co-city managers until a full-time hire is made. They will likely do a good job of keeping the lights on.

Komar was city manager in 2016 until she was forced out because of a dispute over her qualifications – she did not have the then-required master’s degree in government administration or the equivalent. She has since spent almost a decade as the executive director of the Johnstown Redevelopment Authority, showing that she would be qualified to handle the city manager’s job, master’s degree or not. Statler, who will handle human resources matters, has relevant experience running the city’s fire department.

But interim and acting hires, no matter how competent, are not enough.

Constant turnover in high-level city jobs deprives the city of crucial institutional knowledge and harms relationships with department heads and other workers who keep Johnstown functioning.

Stability in the city manager’s position is especially important given the recent turnover in other key jobs at City Hall, where the finance director and the community and economic development director have been on the job for less than three months each.

There are two major projects underway on which the city absolutely cannot afford to let balls drop – the large-scale plan to overhaul the Main Street and Central Park areas, funded by a massive federal grant and seven figures’ worth of the city’s American Rescue Plan relief money, and moving Johnstown’s police and fire departments out of the filthy, dilapidated Public Safety Building, possibly to a new building on Washington Street downtown.

And while the city’s finances have been shored up recently, helped by big infusions of cash from the federal government and the sale of the sanitary sewer system, officials were warned by auditors last summer of looming fiscal challenges – including the ever-growing impact of an ever-shrinking population and the loss of a big chunk of local service tax revenue after the Act 47 exit.

“I think they’ve done a great job getting to the point where they’re at, but they still have challenges ahead (with a) relatively flat tax base and increases in costs that continue to come,” Wessel & Co. CEO Joel Valentine said at the time. “So while they’re at a good spot now and better than they’ve been, they have to be cautious about where they go in the future.”

The city manager will be critical in guiding Johnstown’s ship through these choppy waters.

City Council must successfully complete the difficult task of finding and hiring a competent administrator who is willing to make a long-term commitment to Johnstown.

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Editorial | Johnstown needs a city manager with long-term commitment (2024)
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