DADE CITY — Dan Johnson had a busy morning at this week's County Commission meeting.
He mediated a dispute with the head of a Wesley Chapel youth sports group. He presented new restrictions on political signs at polling places. He explained why Pasco could drop its 3-week-old burn ban.
Johnson is the assistant county administrator overseeing several high-profile agencies that are often the public face of the county, including parks, libraries and emergency services. And next summer, after spending 35 years in county government, he plans to retire.
"The institutional knowledge that man has — he's been here before anybody, practically," said commission Chairwoman Ann Hildebrand. "He has written the history on the walls of Pasco County."
First hired in 1977, Johnson is one of the few remaining employees who remembers when longtime County Administrator John Gallagher was hired.
"We had rats leaving a sinking ship," Johnson recalled, noting that within four years Pasco saw a commission chairman hauled off to jail and had six different county administrators. "The stability he's brought — having gone through an unstable period, you appreciate it."
Johnson, 63, who oversaw the county budget during his early years on the job, has seen a major expansion of county services on his watch. In the late '80s, he helped implement $23 million in voter-approved bonds to build new parks and libraries. The county nearly doubled the size of the Land O'Lakes recreation complex in 2006. And just this year the county opened an upgraded adoption center that can house 80 dogs and up to 100 cats.
These days, though, the parks budget has been slashed by 30 percent since 2007 and officials are contemplating closing down the last two county-owned swimming pools. Library hours were trimmed to save money, and Centennial Library in Holiday has flirted with closure.
Perhaps his most high-profile moment: Johnson received national media attention back in 2004, when the county removed Christmas trees from libraries, parks and other places amid concerns about public displays of religious symbols. (The trees went back up a few days later after county attorneys determined they were secular decorations.)
So what will Johnson miss most? "The great employees I've had to work with. Fortunately, I've had a really good group."
Michele Baker, the chief assistant county administrator, said Johnson is one of many longtime senior employees who will retire over the next five years, including two fellow assistant county administrators and half of the agency heads.
"He's got big shoes to fill," she said. "And he is one of many shoes that are getting ready to be left empty."
Some of those old hands have already left: Former County Attorney Robert Sumner retired in 2008 and former growth management chief Sam Steffey left in 2009.
Next year's proposed budget includes money to pay for a half-year of Johnson's replacement, who would start early next summer. Johnson, who earns $137,496 a year, would be ineligible to work after October 2012 under the state's deferred retirement program.
A search for a replacement would likely include candidates from both inside and outside the county.
Baker said officials are also working on a succession plan for the turnover, including identifying employees who could be promoted and interviewing those who are leaving to document their knowledge.
"There's a need for us to do this in a methodical way to make sure we get the best leaders," she said.
Lee Logan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6236.