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June 13, 2014

Denne called ‘a lightning rod’: Ex-city manager had friends, foes

— Both supporters and detractors often describe Kristen Denne in the same way.

Johnstown’s outgoing city manager has a reputation for being a strong, opinionated and blunt individual, who does not mind occasionally using salty language during debates. Some community leaders and city residents consider those to be necessary attributes for a person in her leadership position.

Others think those traits are off-putting, especially when she delivers harsh assessments and makes tough decisions without any sugarcoating.

“If she was a man, there would be no issue, but just because a woman is a little sassy and has some moxie people get bent out of shape,” said City Councilwoman Marie Mock, who added, “You have to be a tough person to be in that position. You have to be.”

Some people respect Denne’s straightforward approach.

“I enjoyed working with somebody who basically said it as she saw it,” said Cambria County Commissioner Douglas Lengenfelder.

Robert Layo, the Greater Johnstown/Cambria County Chamber of Commerce’s president and CEO, described Denne in a similar way, saying, “In all of our dealings with her, she was very frank about her positions and why her positions were there.”

Denne, who announced her resignation during a Johnstown City Council meeting on Wednesday, made plenty of allies during her time as manager.

“I enjoyed working with her,” said Johnstown police Chief Craig Foust. “I think she was doing a tremendous job for the city. In my opinion, it is a loss for the city and the people of Johnstown.”

There were political opponents, too, including former City Councilman Jack Williams, who once infamously told Denne to “bite my ass” during a council meeting.

“I was one of the supporters of her when we went through the whole selection process in ‘09,” said Williams. “My initial reaction was, for a short time, positive. I thought we had possibly found a gem. But, after a short time, things kind of fell apart.”

Their relationship soured, beginning with a debate over who should be the city’s solicitor, according to Williams.

Earlier this year, Williams took legal action against the city and Denne for failing to supply him documents under a Right-to-Know request. He has frequently submitted Right-to-Know documents in recent years, both when he served on council and now as a private citizen.

“I couldn’t get information as a member of council,” said Williams. “That’s what really started all this Right-to-Know stuff. There was no way of ignoring what I considered her indifference to how she handled it.”

Former City Councilman Joseph Taranto also had occasional confrontations with Denne, but developed a working relationship with her.

“I wasn’t a fan of her management style because the two of us could butt heads. Everybody knew her and I didn’t get along. ... She would attack people like that,” Taranto said. “It was kind of an aggressive management style, but that might be good for Johnstown because it’s kind of a hostile environment, which I learned.”

During her time as manager, Denne has worked to help the city handle its debt, including setting aside $3.5 million in the 2014 debt service fund.

She supported cuts throughout the city, as Johnstown attempts to get out of Pennsylvania’s Act 47 program for distressed municipalities, which it entered in 1992.

Eight Johnstown firefighter positions were eliminated as a cost-cutting measure during Denne’s tenure, a move that was opposed by the department’s union.

“We both had a job to do,” said Randy Novosel, International Association of Fire Fighters Local 463 president. “Kristen has an obligation to try to keep finances in check and balance the budget, and, myself, as a local union president, was working for the well-being of the firefighters and the safety of the city.”

Denne also played an important role in developing a plan for helping the city comply with a state Department of Environmental Protection consent order that requires the city to eliminate all sanitary sewer overflows from its system by Dec. 31, 2022, or face the possibility of huge fines.

Johnstown is requiring all properties to have systems in place that can pass a pressure test. The mandate has drawn criticism, including much directed toward Denne, because homeowners will likely need to pay for more excavation, line installation and remodeling to pass a pressure test than just a smoke and/or dye test, which is all that the DEP requires.

“She took a lot of criticism because she had to make tough decisions,” said state Sen. John Wozniak, D-Westmont. “When you have to make those decisions, you’re a lightning rod.”

Denne, a University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown graduate who took over the position in early 2010, is the first manager to serve more than four years since the city adopted a council/manager form of government in 1993. She received a two-year contract extension with an option for a third in January 2013.

All seven council members – Mayor Frank Janakovic, William Gentile, Marie Mock, Pete Vizza, David Vitovich, Nunzio Johncola and Frederick Mickel – voted to accept her resignation, several with reluctance. Denne is leaving to “pursue another professional opportunity,” according to what she said when announcing her resignation, although she did not respond to multiple requests to be interviewed for this story.

Carlos Gunby, the city’s finance director, will serve as the acting city manager until a candidate is selected to fill the position.

“I think we’ve made positive strides up to this point,” said Gunby. “I’m looking to keep those positive strides going, keep working on and identifying solutions to the sewer project issues, keep the progress going in the right direction until a permanent person is put into the position.”

Vizza offered support to Gunby, saying, “I have all the confidence in Carlos.”

Johnstown’s charter calls for a manager to be “hired on the basis of demonstrated professional competence and education in public management.”

The individual must reside in Johnstown or move into the city within 180 days of taking office.

“I think you need somebody who has a lot of experience in dealing with local government officials, finance, organized labor and with a strong fiscal background,” said Wozniak.

Lengenfelder added, “I’m going to hope that they would do a job search that would be nationwide.”

Vizza supports a nationwide search, but hopes a qualified candidate can be found in Johnstown.

“Ideally, I’d like to see a local person that’s got the qualifications,” said Vizza. “I’ve always been a proponent of hiring from within. We’d be foolish not to pick someone if we find the right professional.”

Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Dave_Sutor.

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