Bozeman city manager, Clark Johnson takes chief of staff position with Burns

Bozeman City Manager Clark Johnson will resign his position and move to Washington, D.C., to become chief of staff for Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont. the two of them announced Friday.

By SCOTT McMILLION Chronicle Staff Writer

"I try to hire people who have way more talents than I have," Burns quipped Friday in a conference call with Johnson and the Chronicle.

He praised Johnson for his management, budgeting and communication skills, as well as for his Montana roots.

"I’ve always used Montana people and I’m not going to change that," Burns said.

Born in Butte, Johnson, 48, grew up in Billings and earned undergraduate and graduate degrees at Montana State University. He is the son of Royal Johnson, a long-term Republican lawmaker from Billings.

He’s been Bozeman’s city manager for six and a half years.

He said he hopes to begin his new job Jan. 5, the same day a new City Commission is seated.

"From my point of view, it’s not welcome," Bozeman Mayor Steve Kirchhoff said Friday. "There’s so much important experience in the city manager position. It’s always hard to lose a leader."

He praised Johnson for doing an "exemplary" job at the city’s helm, where he manages about 300 full-time employees.

"From top to bottom," Kirchhoff said, Johnson has helped improve productivity, communications and other aspects of city government. He knows how to motivate people and reward good work.

"He’s done great things for the city of Bozeman," Kirchhoff added. "Hopefully, he’ll do as good a job for the state, working for Conrad Burns."

"This leaves a leadership hole in the management of the city," said commissioner-elect Jeff Krauss, who added that he has faith in the city’s other administrators to "step in and fill the void, temporarily."

Johnson earns $93,700 a year in Bozeman. He said the new job offers a significant increase in pay, but living expenses in Washington will be much higher. He is married, with two children.

Burns’ current chief of staff, Will Brooke, is leaving that office to resume his Bozeman law practice and be the statewide chief for President Bush’s Montana re-election campaign, Burns said.

Johnson said that when he heard Brooke was leaving the job, he approached Burns’ office and applied to replace him.

Johnson is halfway through a five-year contract with the city. He said his acceptance of the new job will depend on him being released from that contract.

Kirchhoff said he expects that to be "a matter of negotiation."

The chief of staff job for a U.S. senator is partly administrative and partly policy work. Johnson said he’s looking forward to working on alternative-energy issues that could benefit Montana and to seeing that the needs of cities are met.

"I haven’t worked on national politics before," Johnson said. "I think it will be a challenge."

City politics in Bozeman are nonpartisan, but intensely political, with sharp divides between liberals and conservatives. Yet Johnson drew high praise from both Kirchhoff, who called himself a "classic liberal," and Burns, a staunch conservative.

Burns downplayed the importance of partisanship in the Senate, where Democrats and Republicans are closely matched. But he agreed there are a lot of big egos in the capital.

As Krauss noted, Washington is "the land of divisive politics."

He and Kirchhoff praised Johnson for his ability to deal with people of different political perspectives.

But in Washington, where the stakes are so high, things ratchet up. For example, a senator’s chief of staff is a prime target for lobbyists of all stripes.

Burns said he and a group of political advisors and "inner circle" people looked at four candidates for the job, but Johnson rose to the top.

He said he’s certain Johnson will make a smooth transition.

"This will not be a hard leap for Clark," Burns said. "There’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll be a quick study in D.C."

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