City manager to retire

Altoona City Manager Joe Weakland is retiring at the end of the month after 40-plus years – including 14 in his current post.

“He felt it was time to hang it up,” said Lee Slusser, who as planning director holds a position Weakland held decades ago.

Weakland made the announcement Tuesday to the city’s department directors, according to Slusser, who was reluctant to share specific reasons Weakland cited for leaving.

City Council will meet 7 p.m. Monday in Council Chambers to appoint an interim replacement and consider hiring Weakland as a contractor-consultant, according to a public notice in Wednesday’s Mirror.

Former councilman and mayor Wayne Hippo, now chairman of the city’s recently formed Government Study Commission, has mixed feelings about the manager’s retirement.

“When I first got elected in 1997, I was not a big Joe Weakland fan,” Hippo said.

At that time, Hippo’s impression, based mainly on “public perception,” was that Weakland was a mere “administrator” – not someone willing to implement new ideas.

But the impression turned out to be highly inaccurate, Hippo said.

“The reality is that I can’t think of a single idea that he didn’t embrace and try to put into the realm of possibility – when it was a good idea for the growth of the city,” Hippo said.

Among the ideas the manager supported: formation of a Keystone Opportunity Expansion Zone to provide tax forgiveness and promote development in East Juniata and reform of the city planning code, which included a more user-friendly land development ordinance, Hippo said.

Weakland also became a “champion” of Penn State Altoona’s redevelopment downtown, Hippo said.

Weakland ended up doing a “tremendous job under the most difficult of circumstances” – given the city’s financial troubles, which ultimately led last year to seeking help from the state’s Act 47 distressed municipalities program, Hippo said.

Scott Campanaro, president of the city’s non-uniformed workers, represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said he and Weakland had their “ups and downs” as representatives of labor and management.

“But he’s done more for the city than most,” Campanaro said.

The manager was a “decent man with a great financial mind,” Slusser said.

“He basically kept us out of Act 47 for the last 10 years,” Councilman Mike Haire said.

He did it by incessant cutting, which was at least good for taxpayers, Haire said.

Weakland was an expert grantsman, although in recent years there just weren’t any available, Haire said.

Weakland was earning $96,000 a year, according to Haire.

Weakland didn’t return a message asking for comment.

He was named full-fledged city manager in December 1998, after a stint as interim manager and after three previous managers had left the post following criticism from council.

Robert Hagemann – the city’s first manager after moving away from the commission form of government in the late 1980s – resigned in August 1994.

Interim Manager Theodore Wood left in early 1995 and Ray Nearhood was fired in July 1996.

Hagemann and Wood blamed council members for not working together or communicating well with them.

At the time of Nearhood’s firing, a majority of readers polled by the Mirror blamed council, with one saying that the firing was an attempt to sabotage the council-manager form of government.

Weakland, by contrast to that trio, survived.

Finance/ Personnel Director Omar Strohm is his likeliest interim successor, given that Weakland has appointed Strohm as a vacation fill-in repeatedly, Haire said.

“[But] we have to offer it, and [Strohm] has to accept,” Haire said. “It has to be worked out.”

Haire guessed that the interim successor will be in place for six months to a year.

“I think right now whoever gets it will stick with it for awhile,” Haire said. It makes sense not to move quickly because the city is in the middle of difficult business, including a work-through of the Act 47 plan and negotiations with all three unions.

Asked to estimate the scope of a search for a permanent successor, Haire said, “I wouldn’t be against going out and looking [at least].”

It’s also not definite that Weakland would accept a consultant agreement, Haire said.

Regardless, “Joe’s had a good run,” he said.

“I really hope he has an opportunity to enjoy the retirement that he certainly deserves,” Hippo said.

Still, while it’s “kind of sad” to see him go, it’s also an exciting time for the city, Hippo said.

No one’s indispensable, and the current council is “up” for selecting the right person, he said.

“Change is not always a bad thing,” he added.