After six weeks on the job, Anniston City Manager Brian Johnson met with the Anniston City Council during a special four-hour retreat Friday to discuss what he'd learned about city departments and changes he wanted to make. Johnson's top plans include creating a planning and development services department, shifting some city workers to code enforcement duties and exempting others from being civil service employees. The goals of the changes are to combat what Johnson describes as property blight and improve the relationship between the city and real estate developers.
Johnson said he expects the changes to begin by Jan. 1. He added that the personnel changes will likely not require the hiring of additional employees.
Johnson noted that overall, he did not see any significant problems in any of the city departments in terms of the number of personnel or expenditures.
"But there are some surgical opportunities to move some employees around," Johnson said.
Johnson said the new department will be a one-stop shop for property developers and will be headed by City Planner Toby Bennington. The new department will also include two building inspectors who currently operate under the public works department. Much of the department's focus will be to make the process of developing property in the city as friendly and easy as possible.
"I think we have to get to that mentality of, 'what more can we do for you?,'" said Mayor Vaughn Stewart.
Johnson said he had up to three city employees that he'd like to switch over to city code enforcement. The city has just one code enforcer.
"That is woefully inadequate for a city this size," Johnson said.
Johnson said he is willing to have the code enforcers be as aggressive as possible in requiring negligent property owners to comply with city ordinances, all to decrease city blight, such as derelict homes.
"I'm providing you an opportunity to get medieval with this," Johnson said of code enforcement. "But I can take the gas pedal off when you want."
The council members appeared to be in agreement that they wanted Johnson to take strong action in terms of code enforcement to improve the look of the city.
"We hired you for this reason," said Councilwoman Millie Harris.
Johnson added that the city could end up owning houses through code enforcement, dwellings which Housing and Urban Development could use as public housing.
Johnson said he planned to request Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, to push through legislation that will exempt employees in the city manager department from being designated civil service workers. The city manager position is not a civil service job, he said.
"I'm an at will employee, you can fire me at any time," Johnson said. "I need people working for me who are the same ... if they are not responsive or performing well, I need to get them out of there quickly."
Johnson noted that he has delayed the hiring of a city economic developer until he could get the civil service exemption for that position as well. Last month, the council gave Johnson permission to search for an economic developer who would work to bring retail and commercial business into the city.
Also during the retreat, Johnson discussed additional possible long-term plans with the council, including investment in the Cane Creek Golf Course at McClellan. The McClellan Development Authority, which oversees management and development of McClellan, has plans to redevelop part of the former fort into a retirement community — with the golf course being part of that plan.
Johnson suggested the council start thinking about installing an irrigation system at the golf course.
Councilman Jay Jenkins said it was time the city got serious about managing the golf course.
"It's time we invest in it or divest ourselves from it," Jenkins said."The facility is understaffed and equipment is outdated."
Stewart noted that if the city sells Woodland Park, it could use that money to help pay for golf course upgrades. The council decided to close the park earlier this year.
"But we're not looking at doing this anytime soon," Jenkins said of the golf course investment. "We've got bigger fish to fry."
The council will continue its retreat today and discuss topics such as economic development incentives, technology upgrades, improvement of zoning ordinances and the development of the the Chief Ladiga Trail and Coldwater Mountain cycling trails.
Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.