Johnson City commissioners officially extended an offer Thursday for Cathy Ball, an assistant city manager in Asheville, to serve as the next city manager.

“I think we have found a candidate that is going to be an absolute match and fit for Johnson City,” Commissioner Jenny Brock said during a special called meeting Thursday morning.

Commissioners unanimously voted to select Ball for the position. She will be the first woman to serve as city manager in Johnson City.

Pete Peterson, who has served as city manager since 2005, will retire at the end of the year. He’s been the city’s top executive for 16 of his 30 years with the city.

Peterson announced plans to retire in March, and the city hired a search firm, Strategic Government Resources, in May to launch a national hunt for his replacement.

Ball was one of five candidates the city identified last week for the job. The finalists met with employees and members of the public this week and prepared a 30-60 day plan for the city that they presented to commissioners during a packed day of interviews on Wednesday.

Commissioners held a workshop Wednesday evening to discuss their findings and agreed that Ball was their top choice.

“This was an exhaustive process,” said Commissioner John Hunter. “Very thorough. … Every one of the candidates were exceptional and had great strengths, but Ms. Ball definitely stood out as a candidate that really understood our community, our needs and had a vision as to how to address those.

“She knows the things that work and don’t work for a community that’s growing like ours,” he continued.

Vice Mayor Todd Fowler said the commission started out with 34 applicants, which they winnowed down to 11. Those candidates sent in videos answering questions from commissioners.

“We’ve gotten backgrounds, we’ve gotten CVs, we’ve gotten everything,” said Fowler, who estimated that commissioners went through about 1,200 pages of information.

“It’s not like this was a fast thing. The last part was the only thing that was kind of compressed just because of our time restraints.”

Ball grew up in Erwin, went to Tennessee Tech University and started her first job in Johnson City with an engineering consulting firm. She worked for the city of Greenville, South Carolina, for nine years before moving to Asheville, where she has served for 24 years.

Ball was first a city engineer with Asheville before moving to director of engineering and transportation, then public works director and finally assistant city manager, according to her resume. She served briefly as Asheville’s interim city manager while the city council searched for a permanent hire to fill the role. Ball is also a certified mediator.

“One of the things you can’t put on paper, though, is her ... interactions with people,” Brock said. “And that’s one thing that we saw in spending time with Cathy is her communication ability and just her compassion for people.”

Quoting the Bible, Commissioner Aaron Murphy said many are called but few are chosen.

“When it comes to Cathy Ball, she’s both,” Murphy said. “She embodies a level of experience and expertise, skills and gift sets that our community needs so that we may continue to grow and move forward in the right direction.”

Murphy said Ball will help cultivate a healthy culture in the community and among city staff.

Douglas Thomas, senior vice president of Strategic Government Resources, helped shepherd the commission through the selection process.

After a city board has selected the leading candidate, Thomas said, the city will normally have a representative, in this case Mayor Joe Wise, work with SGR, a human resources representative and either a labor attorney or the city attorney to work out the terms and conditions of an employment offer.

A formal employment agreement will then return to the city for consideration. Once that’s approved, the appointment process is complete.

Wise expects Ball will be under contract before the end of the year and will overlap a bit with Peterson, which will help with the transition. It will likely be a couple months before she’s settled in Johnson City.

Wise pushed back against the notion that the commission is hiring Ball because leaders want Johnson City to be like Asheville.

“I think one could argue that we hired her because she learned all the things not to do in Asheville, and we’re going to benefit from some of that,” Wise said. “Where do you need to keep an eye on growth and how do you have healthy constructive growth versus a snowball kind of getting out of hand and all of a sudden you’re pricing people out of your community, for example.”

Wise said the city manager, who is hired and fired by commissioners, has a huge impact on the corporate culture of the city. As of April, eight of the city’s department heads qualify for retirement.

“When we talk about culture, it’s ... not to fix what’s broken as much as identify that there are people in positions that are nearing the end of their careers here,” Wise said, “and we need to make sure that when we fill those positions, we’re doing more than putting people in positions. We’re building a team that works well together.”

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David Floyd covers Johnson City government, Johnson City schools and Ballad Health for the Johnson City Press. He grew up in East Tennessee and graduated from ETSU, where he was the executive editor of the school paper.

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