For the second time this year, Nogales is in the market for a new city manager.
But, unlike the candidate search that concluded in January, council members said last week they want to make this search quick and hire someone close to home.
“I’m pretty sure that there’s a lot of talent in the community that could be approached or recruited,” Councilman Hector Bojorquez said during a meeting on Aug. 5.
The council voted that day to reach out to four contenders who didn’t get the job the last time and see if they want to come back for an interview. Mayor Arturo Garino said he wants to start interviewing candidates in the next three or four weeks.
In a directive to Deputy City Manager John Kissinger, Garino said that the four candidates included two Nogales residents, one from Rio Rico and another from Douglas.
Garino also indicated that, this time around, he’ll be looking for a candidate with city management experience.
“We made a big mistake the way we did the process of it. I think we should have gone with people who are city managers,” he said.
That could have been a dig at Councilman Marcelino Varona, Jr., who pushed last time to open the search to candidates with private-sector experience.
Varona said last Wednesday that he’s still open to someone without municipal experience. But he also mentioned one potential candidate that he’d like to interview: Greg Lucero, a mining executive, school board member, former councilman and one-time mayoral candidate. Lucero also served as Santa Cruz County manager from 2001 until 2010.
The search is getting started nearly three months after the end of the tumultuous four-month tenure of Eddie Johnson as city manager. Since then, Kissinger has been at the helm, enjoying a nearly $30,000 annual pay raise to go along with the acting city manager title.
Elected officials are looking for someone to lead the city as it navigates the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, but they’re also hoping to find someone who can do what recent city managers haven’t: make nice with the mayor and council.
Johnson, a former U.S. Army Lt. Colonel who worked as an administrator at the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office until 2019, clashed early and often with elected officials after starting the job January.
By March, the die appeared to be cast – Johnson wrote a memo alleging that Mayor Arturo Garino had overstepped his authority in violation of the city charter and tried to overrule Johnson’s managerial decisions and that council members were going around Johnson, communicating instead through Kissinger. At the time, Garino denied most of the accusations and used the opportunity to assert his authority over Johnson at City Hall.
Last week, Garino seemed to suggest there would be more conflict if the council picks someone without a background in municipal management: “They’re going to expect John (Kissinger) to teach them what to do. They’re going to expect us to talk and guide them on the city charter. And then later they’re going to say, ‘Oh, the mayor’s getting involved,’ or ‘The city council’s getting involved.’ We don’t need that.”
In May, Johnson and the city council parted ways with a deal that paid Johnson $35,000 in exchange for agreeing not to sue the city and also included a non-disparagement clause that applies to both city officials and the former city manager.
In recent months, the mayor and council have taken a few steps to consolidate their own power. In May, they amended the city’s personnel manual to require that the council receive information on candidates for department director positions. And in June, they passed an ordinance that, according to a meeting agenda, would give the council the power to revise the personnel manual without amending the city code.
It’s not clear if those changes will ultimately weaken the manager’s position in Nogales’ council-manager form of government.
'10 good instead of 100 bad'
For now, the council seems poised to give a serious look to candidates that Johnson beat out for the manager’s job eight months ago. (At Councilman Nubar Hanessian’s suggestion, the council also told Kissinger on Wednesday to ask the Arizona League of Cities and Towns if that organization has a list of potential manager candidates.)
That means they’ll be going back to an applicant pool that, late last year, several council members panned.
“I looked through the whole list and… it was very hard for me to even come up with a name,” Garino said in a December 2019 meeting.
Hanessian said at the same meeting that he would prefer to reopen the application process, “and just hope we get 10 good instead of 100 bad.”
The search that turned up Johnson was the result of a concerted effort by the council to attract strong applicants after former manager Frank Felix resigned abruptly last July, leaving the job just days before his 18-month contract was set to expire.
With Felix heading out the door, the council sought to expand the potential field of applicants by widening the requirements to allow applicants with private-sector and nonprofit experience, as well as raising the salary range.
At the time of Felix’s departure, Garino said he was “not worried” about finding a replacement for Felix and another recently departed city employee.
But, more than a year later, the council is on the hunt for a manager again, now in the shadow of a rocky experience with Johnson that created turmoil for both elected officials and city staff.
Councilman Jorge Maldonado, who is currently running to keep his seat on the council and appears to have secured a victory in the Aug. 4 primary, answered a question as part of a July campaign interview about what the city needs to do to attract a successful manager this time.
“We all got to be in the same ball field and play the same game. That’s the main issue with our city council, that we’ve got to be team players,” he said.