Then and now: Johnson City managers reflect on decades of changes

David Floyd • Dec 2, 2019 at 10:14 AM

City Manager Pete Peterson has worked for Johnson City for about 29 years — more than one-sixth of the city’s 150 year lifespan.

Peterson started in Jan. 2, 1991, beginning as a development coordinator before ultimately rising to the position of city manager, a role he serves in now.

Charlie Stahl has worked for the city on a few different occasions — the first in January 1983 as a city management intern, working principally for the assistant city manager on the budget process. Now, Stahl is one of the city’s two assistant city managers. He’s totaled almost 20 years at the organization.

During their tenures, Peterson and Stahl have witnessed significant shifts in the way the city operates. They’ve also had front row seats to ebbs and flows in the City Commission, which, like any elected body, has gone through periods of combativeness.

Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Peterson said he heard more comments from citizens about the contentiousness of City Commission meetings than comments about the actual content of the meetings themselves.

Peterson remembers participating in a radio interview at around that time in which the interviewer compared the fights in the commission chambers to a wrestling match.

“He goes, ‘You guys have destroyed my Thursday night. WWF is on the same night as the city commission meeting, and I can’t decide which one’s the better fight,’” he said.

Peterson said the natural human factor involved in group dynamics plays a part in that, and in the past, some conflicts have centered around specific issues. For example, in the 1990s, Johnson City was in the process of siting the Iris Glen landfill down the street from City Hall.

“You had one for sure and probably two city commissioners that were elected basically as single-shot candidates because they were opposed to the landfill,” he said. “So you immediately had conflict built into that group dynamic.”

Stahl remembers that the city’s decision in 1984 to purchase property that would eventually serve as Winged Deer Park also attracted its fair share of criticism. The issue was previously considered by the City Commission in the 1970s but was shot down in a split vote.

“I was actually in the audience when it was purchased,” Stahl recalls. “People actually spoke against buying it and the big argument I remember about buying it was, ‘Why are you buying property outside the city limits? How are people going to get to this so-called park?’”

Now, the city limits surround and extend beyond Winged Deer Park.

“That’s where I think the City Commission exercised a lot of vision in the growth of the city,” Stahl said.

At the time, the city’s boundaries were limited to just Washington County. Now, they extend into three counties, including Carter and Sullivan.

Currently, Peterson said there aren’t as many issues that rise to a level of public concern similar to that of the landfill.

“I think the commission and staff have done a really good job of trying to get the community’s input on what direction that the community is headed, and tried to get feedback through our citizen survey,” he said.

The city has performed three or four of those surveys now, and whenever the city gets that feedback, Peterson said it makes adjustments in its budget and work plans to reflect the desires of residents.

Advancements in technology have also led to significant changes in how the city conducts regular business. Survey crews, for example, used to be composed of three or four people. Now, the city can send one person out with the proper equipment to do the work of a four-person team.

It’s also made it easier for the city to keep track of its sewer lines.

“In the early 90s, we probably had no clue where all of our water and sewer lines were,” Peterson said, “or where the valves to turn them on and off were other than what was in the heads of the people that got out and worked that system every day.”

Now, Peterson can pull up a map in his conference room that shows the full extent of the city’s water and sewer line system.

The city is also subject to much more state and federal oversight, he said. The majority of of laws and regulations the city enforces, Peterson said, are handed down by a higher level of government. Those regulations have made it more expensive for the city to operate.

“There’s just more and more of it,” he said. “The level of regulation now in comparison to what it was 30 years ago is exponentially greater.”

For example, builders now have to follow a set of stormwater regulations handed down by the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Thirty years ago, if you wanted to come in and build a 30 lot subdivision, we just made sure you didn’t have a pipe dumping a bunch of rainwater out on your neighbor’s basement,” he said. “That’s about all we looked for because that was all we were required to look for. If you wanted to build a house in a flood plain and build it right beside the creek, it was probably okay.”

Now, the state requires houses constructed in a flood plain be elevated, and subdivisions must retain stormwater onsite and release it at the same rate as the land did pre-development.

“I’m not meaning to say we should not be doing that stuff,” he said. “I’m just saying that’s a change that is more time-consuming and costly and can be frustrating to us just as it is to our end customer.”