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Kingsport government relations officer may be hired this week

January 30th, 2007 8:30 pm by J. H. Osborne



KINGSPORT - By the end of the week, the city of Kingsport could be a step closer to ramping up its regional, state and federal profile.


City Manager John Campbell said he hopes to make a decision no later than Friday on who will be the city's new community and government relations officer.


The city has had a community relations-type position for decades. Dave Light has held the position since the mid-1990s. In December he was promoted to assistant to the city manager, and Campbell decided to add "government relations" to the title when the search for Light's successor began.


Campbell told the Times-News he made the move to address a longtime concern of Model City leaders - their perception that Johnson City does a better job of getting lawmakers' attention.


Campbell, who served as Johnson City's city manager for 17 years, said he's heard the comments from Kingsport officials for many years.


He became Kingsport's city manager last fall. And he says he heard the comments again - while he was having one-on-one conversations with current members of the Kingsport Board of Mayor and Aldermen.


"It was very clear for a long period of time that there has been some perception in the Kingsport leadership that they were not as effective in intergovernmental relations as, at least, they wanted to be, and as they perceived some other cities were," Campbell said. "Frequently, I was told - or other Johnson City officials were told - with some degree of envy, that they felt like Johnson City was doing a much better job in that particular area than they were. That was their perception."


But from the other side, as Johnson City's then-city manager, Campbell didn't necessarily agree with that assessment.


"I always thought we could do better," Campbell said of his tenure with Johnson City.


"In my mind there is no doubt that the present board had a feeling they can do better in government relations," Campbell said. "The citizens should feel good about the fact they perceive they could do better and they want to do better. That was a large motivation to add the expectation on the front end that this person should be involved in that process."


But no matter how good a local government or its officials are at getting the ear of their legislators, their success ultimately depends on just who those legislators are, Campbell said.


"Obviously (Johnson City) did pretty well with Jimmy Quillen," Campbell said. "Part of that was because he loved the VA. He was responsible for $120 million-plus over a certain period of time. From a city government standpoint, we didn't lobby for it. He just cared about the VA. But I don't think he did any more over there than he did for Kingsport."


The city of Kingsport advertised the community and government relations position twice - in the Times-News on Dec. 24 and Dec. 31.


City taxpayers will be paying the new hire's $58,500 to $80,000 salary.


Applications submitted for the job, on file at Kingsport's Human Resources Department upstairs at City Hall, are public record and were examined by the Times-News last week.


Five current, full-time employees of the city submitted "requests for promotion" seeking the job. Campbell said he interviewed several of the in-house candidates.


Another five or six applicants were identified to be interviewed after their applications were reviewed by Barbara Duncan, the city's human resources director, Campbell said.


One application came from a contract employee of the city - Tim Whaley. Campbell said although Whaley has been performing work for the city by contract since mid-December, his was not considered an "in-house" application.


Whaley, a former reporter for the Times-News, listed a bachelor's degree in mass communications from East Tennessee State University on his application to become the city's community and government relations officer. His prior work experience: Aug. 6 to Dec. 6, 2006 - field director, Tennessee Republican Party; March 2006 to August 2006 - campaign manager, (Richard) Venable for Congress; and September 2002 to March 2006, field representative, Sen. Bill Frist.


Two current Times-News employees were among the applicants - and among those interviewed.


They are:


•Hank Hayes, political and government reporter for the Times-News since 2002. Hayes listed a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Tennessee on his application for the job at City Hall. His prior job experience includes having been managing editor of the Business Journal from 1992 until 2001.


•Matthew Lane, City Hall reporter for the Times-News since 2005 and an employee of the newspaper since 1997. Lane listed a bachelor's degree in English from ETSU on his application. Prior to working for the Times-News, Lane was a reporter for the Elizabethton Star.


In all, 37 people responded to the city's call for applicants.


Applications were received from a wide geographic area, from Alabama to Northern Virginia as well as from across Tennessee, Light said.


Requirements for the job, as advertised, include a bachelor's degree in public administration, public relations, journalism or communications and a minimum of five years experience in public relations, preferably in government.


Campbell said he was a little surprised there weren't more applicants with more experience in public relations.


"We didn't really get as much of that experience as typically I've gotten in the past for that kind of position," Campbell said.


Campbell said building stronger links to state and federal lawmakers and organizations will eventually be a large part of the job, but development of local bonds will be an initial primary focus as well.


"As a longtime practitioner of government, I understand there is more than just the state and federal level," Campbell said. "It's very critical that you have good county relations. That's something that's been a long process in some cases. I can speak from experience in terms of where we went from some very contentious times in my assistant years in Johnson City, to where I think we had a good, honest relationship with (Washington) County when I left."


Before taking the city manager's slot in Kingsport, Campbell served as executive director of the NETWORKS – Sullivan Partnership, a joint economic development program of the county and its cities.


At NETWORKS, Campbell said, he recognized Kingsport officials have made really good efforts the last few years to have better county relationships.


And the Sullivan County Commission is "more urbanized" in attitude than the Washington County Commission, he said.


"The county commission here as a whole comes across as the most educated and knowledgeable of the kinds of issues you would see in an urban area than any other county commission in Northeast Tennessee," Campbell said.


Campbell just had a map installed in his suite of offices at City Hall. It shows Sullivan County and outlines the County Commission's 11 districts - with photos attached of commissioners.


In addition to being more proactive in government relations, Light's replacement will be the day-to-day community relations person for the city, dealing with local media, the city's revamped Web site and Channel 16 public access channel.


Whaley's contract work for the city includes development of a policy for use of that channel, Light said earlier this month.


"I'd really like to finalize something by the end of the week," Campbell said. "The biggest reason is I'd like for them to be somewhat involved with where we are with state legislation."


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