A retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel with county-level administrative experience is set to take over the top executive position at the City of Nogales next week.

Edward Johnson, 56, of Goodyear, Ariz., is scheduled to start work as city manager on Monday, Jan. 13, after the mayor and council approved a contract on Wednesday.

“I’ve got a good feeling about him… I think he’s going to do well,” Mayor Arturo Garino said after Wednesday’s regular meeting.

Johnson, who had a 20-year career in military intelligence and most recently worked as an administrator at the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, will earn an annual salary of $140,000 over the course of a two-year contract. He’ll step in for Deputy City Manager John Kissinger, who had been temporarily appointed to fill the role and who will now return to his deputy position.

“I’m super excited to be chosen and ready to get to work,” Johnson said on Thursday.

The appointment ends a search process that kicked off in July 2019. Nogales’ last permanent city manager, Frank Felix, left the job in August.

During an interview on Monday, Johnson answered council members’ questions about his work experience, management style and his family.

Speaking with a Southern accent, Johnson told the council that he grew up in a small town in North Carolina, working in tobacco fields from an early age. He said that he planned to move with his wife and teenage daughter to Nogales if offered the job.

Throughout the roughly two-hour interview, he said he would promote transparency and accountability as a manager. Johnson told council members he left his previous job in October as a result of former Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery’s appointment to the Arizona Supreme Court.

His responses were also peppered with military metaphors. He talked about making a “battle plan” for the city’s ongoing annexation plans and, when asked how he would communicate in a hypothetical scenario, he said he would “run it up the flagpole as quickly as possible.”

In response to another question, Johnson said that he doesn’t speak much Spanish, but intends to start learning the language.

The interview was open to the public, but was not published on the city’s YouTube channel like other council meetings.

In an opening statement on Monday, Johnson told council members that he “fell in love with Arizona” while he was stationed at Fort Huachuca in the late 1980s and would make visits to Nogales during time off.

Following the interview, the mayor and council met in executive session and subsequently added an item to Wednesday’s meeting agenda to hire Johnson.

Full plate

The new manager will inherit some big projects at City Hall.

He’ll be charged with keeping the city’s $60 million dollar budget balanced, a task that forced the council to make controversial funding cuts and freeze several open positions in 2019. City employees haven’t received a raise since 2016 and a recent report showed that most earn less than their peers at nearby local governments.

Johnson will also lead the city’s push on a pair of construction projects at the former Chase Bank Building and Teyechea Park. The bank building, which council members dubbed the “City Hall Annex,” has sat empty since the city acquired it in 2017 as the council has repeatedly changed plans for the space.

And he’s jumping in as the municipal government starts trying to gather support for an annexation petition that would bring several square miles of land into city limits. Council members see annexation as one tool to combat the city’s dwindling population.

“To me it’s an honor to serve the citizens of Nogales and the city council and I really look forward to making a difference, because I see unlimited possibilities down there,” Johnson said.

His pay is near the low end of the $135,000-to-$160,000 pay range that the council set last summer. But it’s still more than the $135,000 salary Felix earned in the position.

The mayor and council increased the pay range last year in an attempt to attract more candidates for the role after other high-profile vacancies at the city failed to draw many qualified applications.

At a December meeting, Garino and several council members said they were disappointed with the applicant pool for the city manager position. One of two finalists that the council invited for an interview instead chose to drop out of the process.

But on Wednesday night, Garino said that Johnson had made a strong impression during the interview and a follow-up conversation conducted on Monday. The mayor said he was “very comfortable” with the decision to hire Johnson.

When he starts next week, Johnson will be the city’s third manager since Shane Dille was abruptly dumped from the post in 2016.

Carlos Rivera, who served in the position from 2016 to 2017, left the city after the council declined to renew his contract without explanation. Felix issued his resignation last July and cut his 18-month contract short by a week after Garino told him that the city was planning to open up an application process for the city manager job.

On Wednesday, Garino indicated that he’s hoping Johnson will be around for longer than his two-year contract.

“I told him, ‘I know 24 months go right quick, but… you’ll get re-appointed again if you do a good job,’” he said.

“I’ve had a successful Army career and I don’t plan on this being a stepping stone to anything,” Johnson told the NI on Thursday. “I was looking for a home in Southern Arizona.”

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