Jumping from Wine Country to Beach Brew
Drawing from outside employee ranks this time, Laguna Beach has hired Christa Johnson from Windsor, a town in Northern California’s redwoods-and-wine country, as its new assistant city manager.
Leaving her position as Windsor’s assistant town manager, Johnson will fill the 10-month vacancy left by John Pietig, who served as Laguna’s assistant city manager for nine years. Pietig was promoted to city manager last November.
“It’s been a long nine months,” Pietig said this week, “with a lot of extra hours,” exacerbated by a dead-of-night deluge last December that stormed through Laguna Canyon, flooding downtown businesses. Johnson’s first day is Sept. 6.
The new assistant city manager, who will earn $160,000 annually, said she’s ready for the challenge of a coastal community struggling to keep its small-town character while promoting international art quality and resort status. “There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on down there,” she said in an interview from Windsor. “Different kinds of issues are fascinating and I want to be involved in all of it.”
Johnson, selected from 275 applicants this summer, said one of her strong points is her expertise in cultivating new business while keeping established entrepreneurs happy, especially in an economy where retail trade is feeling the pull-back punch from buyers. “A big part of attracting new businesses is retaining existing businesses,” she said, “and making sure they feel valued.”
Pietig, who followed in the footsteps of 31-year City Manager Ken Frank, said Johnson is a well-rounded fit for the tapestry of interests that make up Laguna. “Christa’s experience in the profession and in small towns stood out,” Pietig said. “Her sensitivity to environmental issues, her collaborative style at working with communities to resolve problems were all things that surfaced during the (selection) process.” Johnson, also a nine-year assistant to the city manager in Alameda, will help Pietig implement policy directions from the City Council.
She and her family will pull up stakes from Sonoma County’s outdoorsy environs where they have worked and lived for five years and enjoyed hiking, biking, surfing, running and canoeing on the nearby Russian River. She and husband Carly Seely, with their 11-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter, will head south on the 101, ready to jump into the swim of concerns, charms and conundrums that have characterized Laguna since its inception as a farming homestead, seaside getaway and secluded artists’ colony since the early 1900s.
Calling Monterrey and Carmel home, Johnson said she’s familiar with the current concerns of a coastal community. “A lot of families, artists and people who used to live in the community oftentimes can’t afford to live there anymore,” she said. “It’s important to retain its small-town feeling when housing prices have increased so much and make it a place for all segments, income levels, families and professionals in your community.”
When asked about specific plans, Johnson was guarded as the new kid on the block. “I need to get down there and really understand. I need to learn,” she said. “It’s just too soon.”
She outlined issues of importance to her and her new post: “Water quality, coastal preservation, protecting the arts and making sure it’s a community where artists can be.”
Seeing herself as a community liaison, Johnson said she also knows the value of tourist trade, which, next to property taxes, is Laguna’s largest source revenue. Having worked in the hotel industry in Pebble Beach and in public relations at the Yosemite National Institutes’ nature-awareness program for children, she said promoting the local economy becomes contingent upon protecting the environment. “It’s about clean air and clean water and greenhouse-gas emission reduction. It’s about preserving the earth,” she commented.
Johnson describes herself as a compassionate person. “I’m an upbeat person,” she said. “I’m not somebody who can carry a grudge. I hope people like to be around me.” Her father still volunteers with the Salvation Army leadership program and her mother worked for a rape crisis center to help pay for her and her twin sister’s college tuition. Johnson said one of her favorite things is hanging out with her parents. “My dad and I sit around and read newspapers together and we talk about current events,” she said.
On Aug. 31, however, she and her family will be making the 10-hour trek to the Riviera by the Sea. “I’m looking forward to rolling up my sleeves and getting to know who the players are,” she said, “getting more past the surface, to really understand the city and what the issues are.”