In early March, Daniel Penatzer was helping to groom his successor as manager of Ebensburg Borough.
By month’s end, he was agreeing to step in as interim manager through 2021 for the city of Johnstown – which will see numerous critical decisions during what should prove to be an interesting municipal election year.
Penatzer retired recently after 24 years as Ebensburg borough manager, handing the baton to Kelly Cook – and even working alongside her during the transition.
In a March 2 story by Cambria County reporter Shawn Curtis, Cook said Penatzer is “so loyal to the community and he wants what’s best for it.”
Penatzer’s new community is bigger, with bigger problems, so his 35 years in local government will serve him well.
Prior to the Ebensburg post, Penatzer was Cambria County director of emergency services for 11 years.
“He certainly has experience and he has done very well in Ebensburg,” the Rev. Sylvia King, a Johnstown council member, said Wednesday – when Penatzer was approved to serve through Jan. 3.
“It’s a win-win situation,” King said.
One big win is that Penatzer will serve beyond the 2021 election cycle. Had the city hired a full-time manager this year – as was the original plan – that individual would could only have been offered a one-year contract, since state law requires that deals not run past the next reorganization of elected officials, which would occur after the elections for council and mayor in November.
That’s just one of many factors hindering the search for the next non- interim Johnstown manager. We’ve been told several viable candidates balked at the city’s requirement of residency for the position of city manager – a demand not made of other city employees or administrators. Changing the residency requirement would require a referendum vote by residents, since the mandate is part of the city’s Home Rule Charter, in place since 1994.
Deborah Grass, the city’s coordinator for the Act 47 distressed-municipalities program, told The Tribune-Democrat earlier this year that the search for the next city manager attracted more than 50 applicants, about a dozen of whom met the job qualifications. Six people were granted interviews, three finalists were chosen, and none took the job – despite a 50% increase in pay over what the last full-time Johnstown manager, George Hayfield, was paid.
John Trant had been serving as interim manager since Hayfield left in October 2019. Trant’s contract expired Wednesday.
Penatzer, 63, steps in officially on Monday, taking the reins of a city moving through an interesting election year – which has already seen two lawsuits, one against a mayoral candidate and one by another mayoral candidate against a county sheriff contender – and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Also looming over the city and the region is a federal proposal to raise the threshold for communities to be considered Metropolitan Statistical Areas from 50,000 to 100,000 – which would remove the designation from Johnstown and numerous other towns. The Johnstown MSA includes all of Cambria County – so Penatzer will be a player in the opposition of this concept, lobbying alongside county and business officials and other municipal leaders.
Losing the MSA could impact funding in areas such as economic development, housing, transportation and Medicare reimbursements, Cambria President Commissioner Thomas Chernisky has said.
Here’s the good news: Johnstown has fared better than some other cities in terms of tax revenue lost due to COVID-19, Mayor Frank Janakovic said. And Johnstown is in line to receive more than $30 million through the COVID relief plan approved last month by Congress.
So Penatzer will play a key role in helping Johnstown make wise decisions about the use of those dollars.
In addition, the city has reduced its debt and pension obligations with proceeds from the sale of the sewer collection system to the Greater Johnstown Water Authority.
Penatzer, 63, has a proven track record of establishing goals and making positive change, of working with other officials on a shared vision. He’s local – a native of Summerhill Borough.
“He’s very familiar with the city and has a great perspective, as someone from the outside looking in,” King said.
Even as Penatzer joins a revolving door of Johnstown managers, he said one goal is to end that cycle of leadership turnover. He will become the city’s ninth full-time, acting or interim manager since 2014.
“There’s a point to be made about the lack of continuity,” Penatzer said. “It’s very difficult to run a city this size when the faces keep changing.”
Penatzer didn’t seek out the Johnstown position. He told reporter Randy Griffith that Glass approached him when it became evident that a full- time manager hire was not in the cards, yet.
We urge the new interim city manager to spend time with Johnstown merchants, and to meet with residents of the city’s neighborhoods and representatives of the many organizations that are working to improve the community – to fully embrace Johnstown’s challenges and attributes, which will guide him in this important role.
Penatzer is a good bridge to the next chapter for Johnstown, a proven leader who can help the city navigate the challenges of 2021 and chart the best course to a brighter 2022 and beyond.
“The city recognized that we had a good level of success in Ebensburg,” he said. “There were lots of good projects and town-wide improvements. I imagine they are hoping to see some of that pick up here in Johnstown. I am looking forward to bringing that.”