Weakland retires; Strohm steps in

Altoona City Council on Monday accepted the retirement of Joe Weakland after 17 years as city manager, then appointed Finance/ Personnel Director Omar Strohm as interim replacement.

Council also approved a one-year consultant’s contract with Weakland, who is retiring now because of a drastic change in family responsibility that “requires my attention to matters at home.”

Strohm will take on the interim manager’s role and its associated directorship of property maintenance codes without giving up his finance and personnel responsibilities.

At the end of a short special meeting, Community Development Block Grant Manager Mary Johnson approached and held out both her hands to Weakland, 67, who began work for the city in 1972, as a senior planner.

“I’ll miss you,” Johnson said.

“I’ll miss him terribly,” she said later, explaining that Weakland hired her more than 30 years ago, when she was 19, as a temporary housing survey worker who came in as part of a large group – then made it permanent when that gig was over.

“It’s like losing your teacher,” she said. “He gave me a chance.”

As a boss, Weakland was kind and nurturing, she said. When her mother was sick, Weakland allowed her time off to be a caregiver in a way that didn’t make her fearful for her job, she said.

He also gave her the chance to learn all the varied operations of the planning office, she said.

And he had the answer to all her many questions.

She was afraid of him at first.

Others were too, if they didn’t know him well, she said.

Some of those co-workers in recent times have told her they didn’t realize “how nice he was,” until they got to know him better, she said.

He was professional and he was fair, she said.

Strohm, when asked what kind of an interim manager he plans to be, declined to answer, for now.

“I’ll defer to Joe,” he said, explaining that it was Weakland’s opportunity for attention.

Weakland, when asked what pleased him most about his tenure, said maintenance of the city’s physical condition.

That has been the result of a long-term, ongoing effort that includes code enforcement, the rental inspection program and demolition of blighted buildings, he said.

You can appreciate the effort’s overall success only by visiting other cities where decay has set in, he said.

Asked what disappointed him most, he said “Act 47.”

“Why wouldn’t you be disappointed?” he asked rhetorically.

Still, the city was able to stave off “going distressed” a long time, he said, recalling former city leader Ray Voltz talking in the early 1990s about the likely need to resort to the distressed program.

Councilman Dave Butterbaugh took up the same theme, crediting Weakland with “keeping the purse strings tight” through his work with council, the city departments and the labor unions.

Council, not Weakland, broached the idea of the consulting contract, which calls for him to be paid approximately $46,800, in decreasing increments, according to Haire.

Council doesn’t want to ruin his retirement, but wants to be able to “lean” on him, Haire said.

That consulting contract will help with a smooth transition, according to Mayor Bill Schirf.

So will the hiring of Strohm as interim replacement, effective Thursday, according to Butterbaugh and Haire.

“He’s a perfect fit,” Butterbaugh said of Strohm, who will get a $21,000 raise, to $99,000 a year, with the same benefits he has now.

Strohm, who has three masters degrees, has been part of city management for a decade, has worked with Weakland closely, has been Weakland’s vacation replacement and is familiar with negotiating labor contracts, which will be critical to recovery from distress, city officials said.

“He can step right in,” in contrast to someone who would come from the outside, Haire said.

Is he likely to become the permanent manager?

“If he does well, I would expect so,” Haire said.