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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Manager's Long Climb Finally Puts Him on Top

Government: Veteran city and county manager Johnny Johnston is set to begin work this week as the county's chief administrator.

April 01, 2001|TINA DIRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On Monday, Johnny Johnston will pack his belongings and move out of his basement office at the Ventura County Government Center, where he has served for years as head of a low-profile agency responsible for maintenance and parks.

Johnston, 58, will ride the elevator up three flights to his new office and new job as the county's chief administrator--in charge of overseeing a $1-billion annual budget and a 7,000-member work force.

His ascension to the county's top job culminates a nearly 30-year career in government service and fulfills a long-simmering ambition. Before his selection last month, Johnston had twice been passed over for the chief administrator's post, in 1995 and in 1998.

But Johnston knows he will need more than persistence to survive the challenges that lie ahead. He must answer to five supervisors, each with their own constituencies and budgetary priorities. He must negotiate with ever-demanding union leaders. And he must contend with politically powerful department heads, like the sheriff and district attorney.

"I would be less than honest if I didn't have a certain level of anxiety," said Johnston. "But I've been given a great opportunity to make a difference and I'd like to do that."

He knows expectations are high.

Johnston has the daunting task of following interim chief Harry Hufford, a retired top administrator from Los Angeles who was brought in 15 months ago to restore financial and political order to an ailing county government. Hufford not only succeeded but also managed to make friends of some of his political foes.

Hufford himself, however, is quick to discourage any comparisons. He said Johnston's job will be much different.

"This isn't a to-the-rescue job anymore," Hufford said. "His role isn't to be a turn-around guy. It's to take charge and manage over the long haul. He's got to set his own style."

With a 20-year, on-again-off-again relationship with the county, Johnston said he already has a running start. He knows the players, the issues, the politics. He calls himself "an outsider with an insider's knowledge."

But does the affable administrator have what it takes to drive the county's giant bureaucracy, to make the tough budgetary decisions, cut the right deals and sidestep the political minefields in his way?

Yes, says Johnston, with the same self-assurance that helped him once swim across the San Francisco Bay to Alcatraz Island during a marathon. He embraces the challenge.

"In fact, I think I'll do pretty well," he said.

*

Johnston grew up surrounded by municipal politics, watching his father, a political consultant from Long Beach, dispense advice and manage campaigns.

It seemed expected then for Johnston, the eldest of six children, to follow in his father's footsteps. He received a degree in political science from Cal State Long Beach in 1967.

Shortly afterward, he became Compton's city manager.

It was two years after the Watts riots, and racial tensions were high. Johnston was given the task of integrating the city's all-white fire department. An ordinance required that new recruits live within city limits, but officials routinely ignored the rule to hire white.

Johnston's hires honored the ordinance. "It was not a popular idea," said Johnston, who was bitterly criticized for enforcing a rule that would require white firefighters to eat and sleep next to black firefighters while on call. "But I just did it. It was an idea whose time had come."

After only a year on the job, Johnston moved to Artesia, where he served as city manager until 1971. Then, Johnston took on what he referred to as the toughest assignment of his career: Ojai city manager.

Small-town politics posed its own challenges, where decisions at times were based more on friendships than anything else, some former city officials said.

It was a place where a wink and a handshake would earn political favors. A man once asked Johnston for a list of favorite liquors for the city's police officers.

When he was hired in October 1971, Johnston was Ojai's fourth city manager in less than a year. Johnston would hang in for three years.

In that time, a councilman would face a recall effort for supporting a downtown redevelopment plan Johnston proposed and the town's police chief, James Alcorn, would retire after a series of disagreements with the city manager. Alcorn would later win a council seat.

"[Johnston's] a gentleman, and he's pleasant," former Ojai Councilman Hal Mitrany said. "But make no mistake, he's also a fighter. The entire time I worked with him, all I saw was strength."

"He had to take on a job that had an awful lot of people entrenched in a status quo," added former Councilman Clifford Hey, the subject of the failed recall effort. "He straightened . . . a lot of things out."

Johnston eventually won over the townsfolk, which was underscored by their decision to approve the controversial redevelopment plan that the young city manager put together.

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