New things came in a pair for Centennial recently. City Manager John Danielson joined the staff just as the city opened its much-anticipated Centennial Center Park. Danielson is the third person to hold the top appointed position in Centennial.
Danielson hits the ground, running Centennial
By Peter Jones
Although John Danielson has lived in Centennial for only a month, he will soon become one of the most knowledgeable voters in city elections.
Danielson is not just the new guy next door. He is the new city manager.
On a typical day, Centennial’s CEO wades through stacks of city documents, meets with residents and business leaders and implements polices that have been enacted by the elected City Council, whether he agrees with them or not.
Danielson was hired earlier this year at an annual salary of $180,000.
The city manager answers to an ever-changing citizen body that is often void of municipal professionals. The job is diverse and not for everyone – a mix of politics and management, public relations and pragmatism. It is little wonder that a city manager only keeps his job for three to five years. Centennial has had three permanent city managers during its 11-year history.
Danielson, 57, is no stranger to the politics of potholes, parks and land-use proposals. He has spent nearly a quarter century in city government, especially in Nevada and California, where he managed the municipal start-up of San Ramon, Calif., and developed the city’s first parks and public works departments.
Most recently, Danielson was the contracted city manager in Atherton, Calif., a small Bay area city that has been called the second most affluent community in the nation.
“Most of the houses you can’t see. They’re behind walls or big oak trees,” Danielson said of his former home. “It’s a beautiful quiet little place.”
For the Centennial City Council, a chief selling point on Danielson’s resume was his extensive experience working with cities that contract for major services. Unlike many of its neighbors, Centennial has a relatively smaller staff and contracts for public works and law enforcement, among other city functions.
The Villager recently caught up with Danielson during a brief opening on an otherwise busy day at the Centennial Civic Center.
Villager: You’ve been on the job for less than a month. How’s it going?
Danielson: Really well. It’s kind of better than I hoped for. It’s an amazingly friendly area. They’re very welcoming – all the groups, all the cities and the business leaders. This isn’t California (laughs).
Villager: What’s it like to be a city manager in California?
Danielson: It’s a rough-and-tumble profession. The average duration for a city manager in California is about 3.2 years. So it’s a short shelf life. I was born and raised in California. There’s a lot of beauty to California, but it’s also very political and a very contentions and litigious state. It’s hard to do business there.
Villager: Is Colorado more laidback?
Danielson: I’m not going to say laidback. I think they are very work-oriented. My day today is absolutely jammed from start to finish. There are all kinds of boards and special districts. I have a huge, active City Council. Laidback is not the right word. It’s a little more casual and definitely more friendly. Even when there’s a difficult issue to address, people are very cordial about it.
Villager: The other stuff may come later.
Danielson: I’m sure it will. Maybe I’m on my honeymoon. But I got to tell you, where I came from nobody would say “hi” to you at the grocery store. I go to the grocery store and I get into a five-minute conversation with the checkout lady.
Villager: You came from Atherton, Calif., an affluent city with 7,000 people and no commercial properties. Centennial is a much larger, sales-tax driven incorporation with a diverse population of 100,000. Is that an adjustment for you? Do you have to think about things a lot differently?
Danielson: No, I’ve done big and little cities. I’ve done four new cities and I’ve done several contract cities. This falls pretty solidly where most of my experience has been – a medium-sized city like this, relatively new and with a contract base. There’s some different laws, some different procedures. Taxes are much different here. One thing that is really different for me is city boundaries that really go in and out. At any given time, do you really know what city you’re in? We wanted to buy a house in the city and every single address had to be checked to see if it was in Centennial.
Villager: You’re required to live in Centennial by contract?
Danielson: I agreed to. They didn’t make a big deal out of it. I think there’s an advantage, but it’s not always possible. The only reason I lived in Atherton was because the city owned a house that was part of the compensation package. Otherwise, I definitely was not going to live in Atherton. If you can find a house there on the railroad tracks with a flat roof, two bedrooms and one bath for less than a million, I’d say you’re the luckiest guy in town.
Villager: Do you think it’s important for a city manager to live in his municipality?
Danielson: If you’re not going to be subject to the things that you’re implementing, I think you’re open to criticism.
Villager: How would you describe your style of interacting with the City Council?
Danielson: Pretty much just like you and I are here. I want to make a personal connection with every councilmember.
Villager: How would you characterize the job of a city manager?
Danielson: Council is clearly the policy-setting role. There are multiple elected officials trying to figure out what the best policy is. Once they’ve made a legislative decision, they give it over to me and it’s my responsibility to figure out the best way to implement this with limited resources.
Villager: Disagreement with the governing political body is considered the main reason that the average tenure for a city manager is three to five years. When you take a job, do you think about the pros and cons of putting down roots anywhere?
Danielson: No. I have to think it’s going to be long term. It’s a bad idea for city managers to start day one thinking they’re gong to lose.
Villager: What’s the longest you’ve held a job as city manager?
Danielson: Eight years. I didn’t leave because I got fired. When there’s a really big swing in the body politic, oftentimes there’s a desire by the new incoming folks to clean house if they see the manager as too closely aligned with the previous council. It’s a tough profession, but I’ve done it for so long that I don’t take it personally. I’m going to play it up the middle as much as I can. I’m going to try to treat everyone the same. When the day comes that’s not working anymore, OK.
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