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Johnston leaves role after 18 months

By AMANDA HARRISON

Staff writer

After 18 months as the director of Calvert County’s planning department, Chuck Johnston is stepping down.

Friday was Johnston’s last day as the director of the Department of Community Planning and Building, formerly planning and zoning, after he announced his decision to county officials March 6.

“I appreciated the opportunity,” he said Friday morning, adding that there was a difference in focus between him and county officials. “They had a real focus on dealing with issues of the moment. It’s really not about politics. I felt the focus really needed to be” on both the issues of the day and on the long-term.

Mary Beth Cook, the deputy director of the department, will be taking over in the interim as acting director. She assumed the role of acting director of the department when former director Greg Bowen retired in 2011.

“She can man the ship well,” said Yolanda Hipski, the Calvert County Planning Commission administrator.

Johnston, who held the position for about 18 months, has taken the position of director of planning in the city of Fredericksburg, Va. Johnston originally came to Calvert from Virginia when he took on the role of the Calvert planning director.

While in the position, Johnston reorganized the department in a number of ways, from changing the name to renovating the front office — all to improve customer service, he said. In addition, the department implemented customer satisfaction surveys, which Johnston said have shown “very high, positive feedback.”

Cook described Johnston’s role as “instrumental” in “unifying” the department.

Hipski said Johnston brought new concepts, ideas and approaches to the department, “and that’s refreshing.”

Calvert County Planning Commission Chairman Maurice Lusby also said Johnston brought “a lot of innovative ideas” to the county and the department, like bringing a community designer, Will Selman, to the county, for which Cook also said Johnston deserves credit.

“It wouldn’t have happened without [Johnston],” she said.

One of Johnston’s other “big” projects while in the role, Cook said, was his work with the Sustainable Growth and Preservation Act of 2012 and tier mapping for the county.

All five county commissioners noted that Johnston dealt with many of the day-to-day issues and that those types of matters captivated his time.

“I think Chuck probably found himself reacting,” Commissioner Gerald W. “Jerry” Clark (R) said, but said he thought Johnston did “a pretty admirable job.”

Commissioners’ Vice President Steve Weems (R) said “a lot of his time was consumed” with the sustainable growth act, “and rightly so.”

“That is probably the hardest job in Calvert County Government,” Weems said, adding, “I think that he did a great job.”

Commissioner Susan Shaw (R) said Johnston also got “most of” the “backlog” of work done on “ongoing [issues that were] using up tremendous amounts of staff time,” such as zoning contentions involving the Tiki Bar and issues in White Sands and with the Chesapeake Water Co.

“We’ll see how this all plays out,” Shaw said of the new transition. “... We’re all leaving as friends. And I have great respect for him; it’s hard to work for five different people,” she said, referencing herself and the other four county commissioners.

Shaw said she feels as though the direction wasn’t “clear enough” about what the commissioners were looking for in the hiring process last time.

She said she was looking for “a strong manager to get a hold of the customer service problems” as well as a visionary for the county.

“He wanted to be the visionary,” she said of Johnston, adding that he did do work to improve customer service. “We wanted both ... and [someone] who would put up with the myriad of the day-to-day problems.”

To fill the vacant director position, Shaw said the county is looking for someone with a strong planning background who also is a strong manager.

County Administrator Terry Shannon said the job is currently being advertised and once the county receives applications, they will be reviewed and scored based on certain criteria. A panel, including Shannon, will then interview the “stronger” candidates, and then the “top” three or four candidates will be interviewed by the commissioners during an executive session.

Clark said he anticipates the entire process to take about five to six months, and that he is looking for similar qualifications as Shaw. He said he wants someone who can be a visionary and is able to deal with the visions of five county commissioners, adding that the person “would have to be a diplomat as well.” He said he thinks there was more Johnston wanted to do but was hesitant because of the commissioners.

Clark said he also wants someone who would stand up to the BOCC “to do what they feel is right and what needs to be done.”

Commissioner Evan Slaughenhoupt (R), who said Johnston did “remarkably well,” said he wants a candidate who is “more of a leader than a manager” and has an “organized development” background — someone who will move the organization into the future, he explained.

Cook said she will not apply for the director position because she doesn’t have a strong background in planning.

She also said she doesn’t have any major projects for the department while she’s acting director. She said there are still several text amendments and growth tier mapping staff needs to finish.

“I have confidence in the folks over there [at the department] to maintain a good work ethic ... and to carry on,” Calvert County Board of County Commissioners’ President Pat Nutter (R) said. “They won’t miss a beat over there.”

“I thought [Johnston] did well,” Nutter said. “I think he liked the county. I liked him.”

Cook said Johnston was “very well liked” and that they worked well together. “I wish him all the luck in the world,” she said.

“He did a great job, and sometimes, things just don’t fit,” Weems said.

aharrison@somdnews.com