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Johnson City interviews search firms as it prepares to recruit city manager

Johnson City commissioners are preparing to make perhaps the most consequential decision of their tenure.

After about 15 years in the position, City Manager Pete Peterson is planning to retire at the end of 2021. As commissioners gear up to pick his replacement, the body interviewed four national search firms over the span of two hours last Thursday.

The four recruiting agencies — Baker Tilley, Strategic Government Resources, Slavin Management Consultants and Colin Baenziger & Associates — were whittled down from an initial list of 10 that responded to the city’s recent request for proposals.

To narrow down the candidates, Human Resources Director Steve Willis evaluated each firm’s public sector experience, their number of placements and what percentage of their placements were city managers versus other positions. Mayor Joe Wise also received all 10 proposals.

“Clearly these four had the greatest percentage of placements in the public sector — some exclusively public sector,” Willis said.

Commissioners hope to make their decision about the search firm during their meeting on Thursday, May 6, but there seemed to be agreement during the meeting last week that Strategic Government Resources, or SGR, was the preferred choice. Commissioners also noted that Baker Tilly, a firm the city is working with to fill a position at the Freedom Hall Civic Center, would be a strong choice.

During the meeting Thursday, the city asked the candidates to answer six questions:

  • What percentage of your executive placements are still on the job after three years?
  • What percentage of your engagements are on behalf of employers versus candidates?
  • Describe a creative way you have solicited appointments for city manager positions.
  • How do you measure client satisfaction with your services?
  • How many searches are you working on currently?
  • Provide an example of a search you didn’t complete within the last two years. Why was the search unsuccessful?

SGR has 73 active searches and has worked with more than 700 local governments in 47 states. Representatives for the firm said that from January 2013 until now 123 out of 154 hired city manager candidates, or roughly 80%, are either still employed or stayed more than three years.

Willis said he would recommend the commission choose SGR because it appears to have a strong reach and a large network.

According to the current desired timeline, Wise said the city plans to select the search firm this month, and the agency would formulate its search in June and July. Commissioners would then start seeing candidates in August or September and offer the job in late September or October.

Willis said all four search firms have indicated their services would cost less than $40,000, and there isn’t a significant difference in their respective price tags.

Given the magnitude of the decision, Wise indicated this isn’t something the city should nickel and dime.

“If there’s one that stood out head and shoulders above the rest and they’re 20% more than everybody, and we see they’re head and shoulders above the rest, I’m good with 20% more,” Wise said. “I don’t think this is the place where you try to save 10 grand.”

At some point in the process, he added, cost does need to be a factor.

With Peterson and Assistant City Manager Bob Wilson both planning to retire this year, the commission’s choice will have a long-standing impact on Johnson City, Willis said.

“The single most important decision a commission will make is the hiring of a city manager,” the human resources director said. “Because that establishes truly the culture of an organization.”

Adapting to Change Spells Sweet Success for Mona Lisa’s Gelato & Cafe

You can tell if a restaurant is going to be successful long-term through its ability to anticipate and adapt to changes in both the market and in its customer base. “Adapt or Die” is the slogan one of my restaurateur friends uses when explaining what keeps him coming to work every day of the week. You keep continually evolving your business, constantly adapting to current trends whenever possible or necessary.

One such restaurant that makes a habit of successful adaptation and evolution is Mona Lisa’s Gelato & Café.

Owners Sheridan and Steve Nice were the folks who introduced Johnson City to the delicious difference between gelato and what the rest of us were calling ice cream. In addition, the classically-trained Sheridan evolved the Mona Lisa menu to include some of the best original sandwiches and other light fare being served for lunch or for supper.

Mona Lisa Gelato & Café occupies the left-most storefront at 305 W. Oakland Ave. in Johnson City. There is a cozy little patio set up out front with chairs and tables for use when the weather is nice and the West Oakland traffic doesn’t drown out the conversation.

Inside, Mona Lisa’s customers are greeted by a friendly soul behind the checkout counter, standing next to the chilled display case showing the current gelato selections. On the wall behind is a big chalkboard listing the day’s specials. To the left is a portable steam table capable of holding various soups, stews and the like. Next is another display case for tarts and desserts.

The inside dining area has six tables seating four diners each, so it would be wise for you to snag a table while the rest of your group is busy studying the day’s specials on the chalkboard out front. Restrooms (clean and tidy) can be found at the rear of the dining area.

A meat loaf sandwich

After about five minutes of my being hypnotized by the day’s gelato offerings in the display case out front, my dining partner suggested that I give my lunch order. Seeing that Mona Lisa’s home-style meat loaf was available as a plate lunch, I decided to have some on a house-baked ciabatta roll, ($12.99) rather than plating it.

Though the sandwich was delivered tableside with condiments to hand, none were needed. Sheridan Nice’s take on home-style meat loaf started with ground chuck and sirloin, mixed with egg, chopped red bell pepper, onion and just the right blend of spices to make it extra special. One bite of the meat loaf on its properly-baked ciabatta bun was all I needed to confirm I’d made the right choice.

Half a chicken salad sandwich

Still working on her late breakfast, my dining partner ordered just half of a ciabatta bun full of Mona Lisa’s chicken salad ($5). Sheridan takes finely chopped breast of chicken and mixes in chopped celery, onion and other good things from the garden, then blends it all with a mildly spiced mayonnaise before serving a generous dollop of it on a freshly baked ciabatta bun. I was allowed just a taste of the chicken salad and could understand why my dining partner liked it so much.

A Reuben panini

While my dining partner and I were swapping tastes and nibbles, the Carnivore was digging into Mona Lisa’s version of the classic Reuben sandwich ($12). Here, well-seasoned corned beef is sliced thin as a lace curtain, then stacked on a Panini in alternating layers with Emmenthaler cheese and the most delicately flavored sauerkraut I’ve ever tasted. After crunching down a couple of bites that included some dill pickle slices added for taste, the Carnivore pronounced it to be one of the best Reuben sandwiches he’d ever eaten.

Half a chicken bacon cheddar ranch panini

The Dieter chose a Mona Lisa half-sandwich, being half of a chicken bacon and cheddar ranch style Panini ($6). Sheridan’s take on the CBR was different from most, matching slices of extra sharp cheddar cheese with marinated chicken and smoky bacon crumbles, adding creamy smooth ranch dressing and then grilling the panini until everything was melted and yummy.

And gelato for “afters”

After all of use had finished our entrees, it was time for dessert. After all, what’s the point of dining in where gelato is served for dessert if you don’t have some?

As usual, the Carnivore decided to give dessert a miss, saying that “Dessert takes up stomach room that could be better filled with meat.” The rest of us having no compunction about having a sweet finish to our meal, returned to Mona Lisa’s gelato display case up front for a look-see. My dining partner opted for a scoop of Mona Lisa’s tiramisu gelato, while the Dieter chose some of their triple smooth chocolate.

Since both the Dieter and my dining partner wanted to try some of what the other had chosen, they had both scoops put in one cup with two spoons. I chose a single scoop of Mona Lisa’s blood orange sorbet in a waffle cone.

Gelato differs from ice cream in that it is hand- rather than machine-blended. Hand blending means less air is folded into the mixture. This gives the gelato a denser, smoother consistency with a stronger flavor bouquet, so you can have less of it and still be satisfied. Sorbet being the fruit juice version of gelato, my blood orange sorbet was a tangy sweet treat, right down to the bottom of its still-crunchy waffle cone. As for my dining partner and the Dieter, they had a leisurely race to see who’d get in the “last lick.” The Dieter won by half a spoonful.


Mona Lisa’s Gelato & Café is a great place to enjoy sandwiches and other light fare for lunch or supper, and then finish your meal with some of the best gelato made in the Tri-Cities. Sheridan and Steve Nice make sure that their business is constantly adapting and evolving; their excellence and attention to detail in both menu and customer service is a sure reason why Mona Lisa’s got that smile on her face.

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Five questions with HMG podiatrist Dr. Arthur Belanger

Since he first moved to Johnson City from Florida in high school, Dr. Arthur Belanger been in love with the area.

And even though his career has taken him from Chattanooga to Des Moines, Iowa, and Greeneville, he’s always made his way back. In 2021, he and his family moved back to Johnson City, where Belanger works as a podiatrist with Holston Medical Group.

Why did you become a doctor?

When I was younger, I had the opportunity to volunteer and observe at local hospitals growing up, and I also had the chance to learn what it was like to be a physician from my father. However, I’ve grown to learn what drives people to do something is rarely done with any true appreciation of what will be felt once they are doing it. To that end, I didn’t trying realize how satisfying it is to work with my hands and to help others improve their mobility and decrease their pain until I went to school and began making a difference in patients’ lives.

What made you want to specialize in podiatry?

When I was younger I had the opportunity to volunteer and observe different specialties — that made me want to become a doctor, but when I went through my rotations of learning different specialties I found podiatry to be the best fit for me. From a personality standpoint, all podiatrists are generally cheery and friendly people, which I appreciated. Another great personality trait of podiatrists is that we’re very collaborative. We are dedicated to helping patients better their care whether that’s bunions, sprains or injuries that aren’t resolving or simply general foot and ankle pain. It’s a truly rewarding specialty.

What brought you to the Tri-Cities?

My family and I have lived here before and we fell in love with the scenery of rivers and four seasons, as well as the hiking. We also enjoy being close to family and friends.

What has the last year-plus been like for you?

Like many others, this pandemic has been saddening and frustrating (for me). As a father, it’s been difficult to realize, and see my family face lost opportunities like graduations, field trips, etc. At a higher level, it’s also saddening to experience and know others who suffer loss of friends and loved ones of all ages so suddenly.

Lots of people have put off seeking healthcare during the pandemic. What’s your message to those who are still delaying healthcare because of COVID-19?

I encourage everyone to always prioritize their health. Regular, preventative health screenings keep everyone as healthy as possible and can help us catch anything out of the ordinary as soon as possible. And, the sooner we catch something the better the outcome.

If you’re interested in scheduling an appointment with me or one of my colleagues, please visit us at HMG Primary Care and Specialty Care located at 3019 Peoples St., Suite 300, Johnson City. You can also give us a call at 423-461-2100.

Kyle Busch celebrates in Victory Lane after winning a NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan., Sunday, May 2, 2021.

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