Behind closed doors Antioch Council majority selects “Con” Johnson to be permanent city manager

No public process, no executive search; directs city attorney to draw up contract for Oct. 25th vote

Two council candidates decry decision

“The best practice here in terms of transparency is to advertise the vacancy with details about the position…” Martha Perego, Director of Member Services and Ethics for the International City/County Management Association

Cornelius “Con” Johnson.

By Allen D. Payton

During the closed session meeting prior to the Antioch City Council’s regular meeting, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022, on a 3-2 split vote, they selected Interim City Manager Cornelius “Con” Johnson to be the permanent city manager, just six weeks before the November election. Mayor Lamar Thorpe and District 4 and 1 Councilwomen Monica Wilson and Tamisha Torres-Walker voted in favor while Mayor Pro Tem Mike Barbanica and District 3 Councilwoman Lori Ogorchock dissented. A final vote to hire Johnson and approve his contract is scheduled for their October 25th meeting, just two weeks prior to the election.

The council held no nationwide search using an executive search firm nor did they open it to other city staff members including Assistant City Manager Rosanna Bayon Moore, to find the best candidate for the position. Although it was rumored to be Johnson, no official notice was provided to the public who the council was considering, so no input could be given prior to the decision being made. All that was written in the council meeting agenda for the fourth time was “PUBLIC EMPLOYEE APPOINTMENT: CITY MANAGER. This closed session is authorized pursuant to Government Code section 54957.” (See agenda)

At the beginning of the council’s regular meeting, City Attorney Thomas Smith reported out from closed session that, “on a motion by Councilmember Wilson and a second by Councilmember Walker the city council made a motion directing the city attorney to prepare a contract for the appointment of Cornelius Johnson as the city’s permanent city manager,” and that the vote passed 3-2.

Four council challengers were asked if they had a comment about the selection of Johnson, in closed session and without the public knowing who it was the council was considering.

District 4 candidate Shawn Pickett responded, “I’ll keep it brief. City council talks transparency but actions say otherwise.”

District 1 candidate Joy Motts also responded writing, “For a Council that claims they want to be inclusive, transparent and making community driven decisions, I personally want to know why they made this decision behind closed doors and without a public process and public input? Antioch deserves the best and the brightest. Mr. Johnson may have ultimately ended up being the best person for the job, but we will never know. These are the exact type of decisions and actions that are causing many of their constituents and community leaders to lose respect and confidence in their ability to govern.”

The other District 1 challenger, Diane Gibson-Gray responded, “Hiring a city manager before the November election is a disservice to the new city manager and the community.  Currently, the mayor has the majority vote, however, with the November 8th election that may change. After the election if there is a new council majority, I am confident there will be a candidate selection process that includes posting the position internally and externally, including hiring a search firm. Antioch is a city of 115,000 and we need a strong, experienced city manager. If on November 9th the council majority remains the same, that is a story for another day.”

Sandra White did not offer a comment but had previously said the council should wait until after the election to hire a permanent city manager. (See related article)

Attorney Smith was asked via email Wednesday morning if the vote should have occurred in public, and the candidate’s name be provided so the public could offer their comments prior to the vote. He was also asked if it is proper procedure to make the decision before the contract was provided for the council members and the public to review prior to the vote rather than prepare the agreement after the fact.

His Executive Legal Assistant Rakia Grant-Smith responded Thursday morning, “The appointment of the City Manager has not yet occurred. It will be an agenda item for City Council consideration at an upcoming regular City Council meeting.  The contract template will be included in the agenda packet for that meeting.  The City Council will determine compensation for the position at a regular meeting after hearing public comment.  We anticipate this item will be placed on the October 25, 2022 agenda.”

Smith was asked again, Thursday morning, shouldn’t Johnson’s name have been included in the agenda item so the public would know who they were considering in order to provide input to the council before their closed session vote. No response was received prior to publication time.

Questions were also sent Wednesday morning to Martha Perego, Director of Member Services and Ethics for the International City/County Management Association asking, shouldn’t the vote have occurred in public, and the candidate’s name be provided so the public could offer their comments prior to the vote. In addition, they were asked if it is proper procedure to vote to select someone as city manager without a contract being made available for review, first.

Perego responded, “The law varies from state to state about the topics a governing body is permitted to discuss in executive session. It is my understanding that under California law, the governing body can discuss the potential appointment and terms of an agreement in closed session.  But both the appointment and employment agreement must be approved in open session of city council and on the public record.

The best practice here in terms of transparency is to advertise the vacancy with details about the position including that they are seeking an individual to serve. Then they would interview candidates and announce their selection publicly with an explanation as to why they chose this individual to serve.  That of course assumes that the person is not from within the organization.

If it is an internal candidate, such as a current deputy or assistant manager, then it is fairly common for the governing body to make that appointment without any external advertising.”

“I’m not judging the competency of the interim candidate or the governing body’s judgment here.  But I observe that the fact that they never did a competitive search is raising this question ‘how do we know that this is the best candidate’,” Perego continued. “If someone is an internal candidate who got their position via a competitive process, has a track record with the organization and gets selected to be interim and then manager, you have the confidence that the person has demonstrated their capabilities. Even without a competitive search.

In this scenario, absent a competitive search for the interim, the governing body is now making a decision to award this person the permanent job based on one year’s experience.  That raises the question about how do we know that this is the best candidate. They could have resolved this issue by just going through a competitive process either with the selection of an interim (would have been a smaller field since it was a temporary position) or doing a competitive process now to select a permanent candidate.”

“I don’t think they are required to list who they are discussing when in executive session,” she added. (Emphasis added)

Johnson’s Record as Interim City Manager

Johnson was hired as the interim city manager last year, with a one-year contract, even though he had lied on his resume claiming to be a retired police captain from the San Francisco Police Department when he’s a retired lieutenant and was only an acting captain at the time he retired. In addition, prior to their vote the council members were all provided with information from an independent background check done by an Antioch resident that shows Johnson had filed for bankruptcy, twice and had three foreclosures. (See related articles here, here and here)

At the beginning of this year, Johnson worked to evict Congressman Jerry McNerney from his office space at the Community Center at Prewett Family Park, even though McNerney had a lease that didn’t expire until next January. (See related article)

Then Johnson made major mistakes in handling the hiring of a new interim police chief, when he fired the previous one, current Captain Tony Morefield, via email which included all the council members, other city staff members and even Steve Ford, who had just been announced as the new interim police chief the day before. He didn’t fill the position until nine weeks, later. (See related article)

Finally, Johnson was part of the group, along with Thorpe and Torres-Walker, who had the permit revoked for the annual Antioch Juneteenth event organized by Claryssa Wilson, and instead hired an Oakland-based motorcycle club to organize it. (See related article)

If the council hires him and includes a severance package in Johnson’s contract, should a new council majority be elected in November and seated at the first council meeting in December, they can terminate him from the position at a following special meeting, before the end of the year. But that will result in Johnson being paid for however long the severance lasts while at the same time paying an acting city manager until a new, permanent city manager is hired.

Please check back later for any updates to this report.

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