Annville native Candie Johnson has spent her career in local government, but her latest position is a capstone in so many ways.
Johnson was hired as Annville Township manager in April. At first, she was a little apprehensive about taking the position. But now, a few months into the job, she’s confident she made the right decision.
“For the first time in my entire municipal career, I feel like I have a purpose – a positive, influential purpose,” said Johnson. “For the first time in my entire career in municipal government, I felt like I had a reason.”
She began her career in municipal government at North Lebanon Township in the late 90s as an accounting clerk and recycling coordinator and then got involved with code enforcement. She demonstrated a knack for that role, and from there, Johnson said she “got whooshed away” to subsequent positions, plucked out to help solve problems for other municipalities. After North Lebanon Township, Johnson went to Union Township, where she got certified for building code inspections and served as a zoning and code enforcement officer.
She then got “plucked” to Jackson Township, where she arrived just in time to help manage the development of Wheatland Manor. She went on to work at Heidelberg Township, Manheim Borough, and West Earl Township, where she took a top municipal position for the first time as manager and served six years in that position. After taking a brief detour in the private sector during the pandemic as a contracted code enforcement officer, she was approached by one of the firm’s clients, East Earl Township, to serve as manager. Johnson, who now lives in Schaefferstown, jumped at the opportunity to work closer to home. But then, after about a year and a half in the position, she heard about the opportunity with Annville Township.
“I’ve always wanted to come home, and so, I just thought, what the heck? It’s a resume, just try it,” said Johnson.
The search process for Annville Township’s manager was initiated in the fall of 2022 with the departure of the township’s previous manager, Karen Gerhart, who was the third manager in a year’s time.
Consultant Mike Gossert, who was hired by the township to serve as interim manager following Gerhart’s departure, said he initially thought the goal would be to fill the position as quickly as possible. However, he began having discussions with the township commissioners about what was happening in the township, what strategies it might employ in the future, and how that would impact the type of manager they were looking for, Gossert said, and determined that it was crucial to find someone who would take ownership of the position moving forward.
“Township manager is a dying breed out there,” said Gossert, who consults for multiple local municipalities through Keystone Business Connections. “People aren’t jumping into these positions.”
Gossert said that getting enough high-quality applications was his chief concern, given how many similar positions were open.
Johnson, Gossert said, was a great candidate for the position, with extensive experience and ties to the area. “This is where she wanted to retire from,” said Gossert.
“I know every nook and cranny,” said Johnson of Annville. “I grew up here as a teenager, so you know everywhere, everything, because you ran around town all the time.”
Johnson shared with LebTown a few of the challenges and opportunities on the horizon for Annville Township.
Growth, specifically the limited opportunities for growth in Annville Township, was mentioned by both Gossert and Johnson.
“Annville is a township that is really unique in that it is pretty much grown out,” said Gossert.
Johnson noted that Lebanon Valley College also tends to have an interest in properties that go up for sale, and that although Annville is a township, it’s more like a borough where it’s in the middle of larger and more suburban and agricultural townships such as North and South Annville and North Cornwall Township.
“What we’re trying to do, what my goal to do, is to clean up Annville,” said Johnson.
Johnson noted that there has been a lot of change since she grew up, including an influx of student housing.
“We are blocked into this little place now, and it’s just to kind of make the best uses available of what we have, and look at zoning, those kind of things, make sure we’re protected,” said Johnson.
Johnson, who spent much of her career interfacing with the public on code enforcement issues, said that while it can be tough to deal with “bad apples,” everybody else is thrilled to see properties cleaned up. Although she added that the “it’s my property, I can do what I want with it” sentimentality has been waning over the years.
“Nowadays, people are realizing that there are rules, and not everybody likes to abide by the rules, but it’s just a safer place to live,” said Johnson. She added that code enforcement could also help property values overall. “If you want to sell and that (bad apple) is next to you, you’re not getting anything because you have horrible neighbors.”
“So, I’ve always focused on helping that person instead of worrying about making that one mad,” said Johnson.
Johnson related a story about something well-known Lebanon lawyer George Christianson said to her while she was working with him to address a dumping situation at the “smutzie,” a property he owns that was formerly a tailing pond for Bethlehem Steel and more recently used as a game preserve. Johnson said Christianson addressed the situation by erecting a fence to ward off the illegal dumping and offered a memorable explanation of why.
Johnson recalled with a smile: “He said, ‘It’s the three P’s. You’re patient, you’re persistent, and you’re a pain in my ass.'”
Johnson said she’s used that anecdote over and over again over the years, as well as another piece of wisdom shared with her by another mentor: “Don’t burn your bridge because you’re going to have to walk over it.”
“I didn’t burn a bridge with George because I was patient, I was persistent, but I was a pain in the ass,” said Johnson. “I didn’t give up.”
Johnson said she begins any code enforcement process by writing a letter or having a conversation, and always shares pictures of the issue in question so the resident knows exactly what she’s addressing.
These experiences, Johnson said, have served as great preparation for serving in a municipality’s top staff position.
“If you can accomplish good enforcement and good zoning issues, you can pretty much accomplish anything, in my opinion,” said Johnson. “Nobody loves a zoning officer.”
Johnson said she takes the ethics of the position very seriously and leans heavily on zoning books and code enforcement texts as “black and white” documents. And even though they can sometimes be interpreted differently, Johnson said she has never lost a case at a district justice over the years because she tries to follow the book.
In addition to cleaning up the township, Johnson said she’s also excited about the opportunities for making township operations more efficient through shared services. The previously-reported joint police department with Palmyra as the Western Regional Police Commission is now in operation, with Annville police moving to Palmyra while still maintaining a small office in Annville. No reduction in services or officers is part of the merger, with the efficiencies coming from shared administrative functions.
Johnson said the merger is taking a lot of work off the township’s staff’s plate.
The township is also exploring shared services with the municipalities in the Annville-Cleona School District through a DCED-funded regional study.
As for other township matters on her agenda, Johnson said she wants to update some of the code enforcement ordinances so that they have more significant penalties for property maintenance, noise, and those kinds of things. Johnson said short-term rentals are also a major ongoing discussion in the township right now, as they are in many county municipalities.
Also a major item on Johnson’s radar is the impact on traffic through Annville on Route 422 due to the fast-growing South Annville Township industrial park and expanding housing developments around Annville. Parking is also limited in town, Johnson said. She said she would love to have a downtown manager come in and help be a liaison with the small business community and ways to promote their interests.
“I walk a lot for lunch, and I go to these restaurants, and I observe things, and that’s the only way you’re going to learn where the problems are,” said Johnson. “And maybe you can fix it. I can’t fix everything, but I’m sure going to try. That’s important to me. And if I don’t, then why am I here?”
Johnson is energized by the job ahead, saying that it’s been an “aha” moment for her, realizing that she is in the right place.
“I had a resident come in last week, and his wife found out I worked here – we all went to school together – and he came in, said, ‘You are my Candy, right?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m your Candy.’ And he was elated to have somebody here he knew.”
Johnson said she’s not in Annville just for a paycheck; she’s here to make a difference. She thinks that was a big seller to the commissioners – to have someone who really cared. And the commissioners, she noted, have been very interested in making sure she’s happy and supported in her work.
Throughout Johnson’s entire career, she’s heard variations of the evaluation feedback that she takes things “too personally.”
“My opinion, if I didn’t, why be here? Why be in this position if you don’t take it personally?” said Johnson.
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