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Media Coverage
Mayor Calls Johnson's Ouster Petty
November 23 1997


Sunday, November 23, 1997
Section: West County
Page: A31
Scott Andrews
Correction: CORRECTION: Published Correction appeared on: Tuesday, November 25, 1997


A Sunday story on Page A31 incorrectly attributed a statement to the Rev. Orenzia Bernstine. It was former Richmond Councilman Jim McMillan who said Councilman Richard Grifffin told him, Councilwoman Irma Anderson and the Rev. J.L. Johnson that Griffin had no intention of firing City Manager Floyd Johnson.
Caption: Photo. Floyd Johnson, mug. 

RICHMOND The answer to why City Manager Floyd Johnson was forced out of his job last week after four years as the city's top executive depends on whom you ask. 

Those who agree with the bare majority of five City Council members who voted Wednesday and Friday not to renew Johnson's contract say he had no vision for the city, played favorites with City Council members, hurt the city's finances and handled personnel issues poorly. 

But Johnson's supporters argue the 50-year-old executive did just the opposite. They describe him as a manager who hired good employees, revived the Port of Richmond and Richmond Housing Authority, reduced crime and forced unemployment down. 

His allies say the true reasons for his dismissal are sinister. They say his opponents are angry because he refused to be swayed by special interests or to make decisions based on orders from individual council members. 

The one thing some supporters and some critics agree on is that being city manager of Richmond, with its diverse interests and large City Council, is never easy. 

"It is difficult for any city manager to come in and keep nine people, sometimes with very different ideas, pleased. There are times when you really walk a tightrope," said former Councilman Jim McMillan, a friend of Johnson's who voted to hire him and organized a meeting to win support for him in recent months. 

Dennis Spaniol, executive director of the West Contra Costa County Council of Industries, and Councilwoman Donna Powers, who are happy to see Johnson out of his job, agreed. 

"It may well be an impossible job to keep nine members happy," Spaniol said Friday. 

It could be weeks, months or even years before City Council members who voted in closed session to oust Johnson Powers, Alex Evans, Richard Griffin, Tom Butt and Nat Bates reveal their reasons publicly. 

They said acting City Attorney William Bonnell has advised them not to comment on the issue. He fears that Johnson will sue if his chances at another job are hurt by negative comments, Powers said. 

Mayor Rosemary Corbin and Councilman John Marquez, who support Johnson, said reasons given during the closed session Wednesday were petty. They said one member, who they would not name, criticized the size of a suggestion box Johnson put up at City Hall. 

"Come on. You stop a person's career because a suggestion box was small?" Marquez said. 

Tension between Johnson and some council members was evident in recent council meetings. 

Bates blasted him for recommending to close the deteriorating Richmond Plunge swimming pool without first getting community input. Butt, who admits to having a very ambitious agenda, has frequently chided Johnson for not enforcing some city ordinances and offering reports quickly enough. 

Johnson has lost the support of local industry leaders, who have been "miffed" by his lack of contact with them, Councilwoman Lesa McIntosh said. 

Spaniol, whose group represents many Richmond industrial firms, criticized Johnson on Friday, saying he has not helped develop the economy, has hurt finances and has poorly handled personnel issues, such as a nepotism charge against Deputy City Manager Henry Tingle. 

"In my view, he lacked essential management skills," he said. 

His criticism was echoed by Darrell Reese, a lobbyist. 

"He has not put forward a vision of what needed to be done for the city, to move it forward economically. He came up with no program to change the image of the city," said Reese, who in 1993 lobbied heavily for the city to hire Johnson. 

Others interpreted this industry criticism as evidence of a positive characteristic: Johnson does not "kowtow to special interests," as McIntosh put it. Even Powers, who voted to fire Johnson, agreed. 

Corbin, who some accused Johnson of favoring over other council members, said he has blocked efforts by the Chevron Corp. and Wickland Oil to wrest control over the fate of Point Molate, the former naval base, from a committee of residents. 

Supporters also said Johnson resisted efforts by individual council members to give orders to city staff without the formal support of a council majority. 

"We've got a bunch of city council members who want to be city manager," Corbin said. "They are never going to keep a city manager because no professional city manager is gong to take orders from any individual city council members." 

Powers admitted going to Johnson independently to demand quicker action on a system of alarms to alert residents on industrial accidents. But she said the project has the formal support of the City Council. 

But even Johnson's supporters, including McIntosh, admit he may have been slow to respond to some council members' requests for information. 

"He was a man that moved according to the way he thought he should move. No one could speed him up, because he wanted to do things right," said the Rev. Orenzia Bernstine of New St. James Missionary Baptist Church. 

Johnson's sympathizers said he was often facing an impossible task to please council members, particularly Butt who frequently asks for reports and information on a variety of topics. Butt said he believes those requests could be met by a competent city manager. 

Deep divisions on the council, which often settles issues by closely divided votes, also made Johnson's job difficult. 

"His hands are tied because the council is dysfunctional. They can't get along on anything When you have a split council, that is about impossible," said Bob Sutcliffe, a former council candidate and the current chairman of the Police Commission. 

Although Johnson's supporters have been critical of all members who voted to oust Johnson, Griffin has drawn particularly heavy opposition. 

Before his successful re-election Nov. 4, Griffin told the Times that he had "not entertained the idea of replacing the city manager." Bernstine said Griffin told him and Councilwoman Irma Anderson the same thing. Now that Griffin has voted otherwise, some critics suspect him of not being forthright as he campaigned. 

"He lied openly," McMillan said. 

Corbin and McMillan said they suspect that Griffin wanted all along to dismiss Johnson but obscured his position until 15 days after the election when the first vote not to renew Johnson's contract was taken. But Reese said he has known for some time that Griffin opposed renewing Johnson's contract. 

Griffin said the timing of his vote had nothing to do with the election. But he declined Friday to say when he made the decision to support nonrenewal of Johnson's contract, saying he must first confer with a city attorney.