A week after beginning his new job as administrator for the Town of Paonia, Kenneth "Ken" Knight had already rearranged his office and faced his desk away from the wall and toward the large picture window looking out onto Grand Avenue. So far he likes what he sees.
Knight is the town's fourth manager since 2014. He replaces interim town manager Dan Dean, who accepted a job in Kimball, Neb. In his 20 years in public administration he has held numerous positions in towns and cities in seven states, from Maine to California. Out of 36 applicants, Knight quickly rose to the top five.
"There really isn't anything I haven't seen," said Knight. While he needs to get up to speed on Colorado laws and regulations, he has a very broad perspective of his profession. "I do believe that I can bring a different set of eyes and a different perspective here."
Knight first arrived in Paonia for his interview in December by way of the Montrose Regional Airport. His first impression of the area was positive. He liked the agriculture, the warm welcome he received, and as a wine enthusiast -- he stops short of calling himself a connoisseur -- he greatly appreciates the local wineries. He sees the community as maintaining a balance between its mining and agricultural history and the present, while keeping an eye on the future. He's also impressed by the town's rich arts community and the fact that High Country News has been here for almost 40 years.
Knight was born and raised in Maine and moved to California out of high school. After serving four years in the U.S. Air Force he earned a bachelor's degree on a G.I. Bill. He worked in the financial sector in San Francisco and was a computer operator for the City of Santa Rosa for six years while earning his master's degree. He was eyeing a management position in Santa Rosa when family matters drew him back to Maine, where he got his first town manager's job. He later worked in municipal management in Florida, and in public administration as a consultant in the Northwest.
When the 2008 recession hit, he landed in the great state of Texas. His last job was as city manager of Marlin, a community of about 6,600 just south of Waco. Like many southern communities, it was racially divided, he said. In addition, each of the city's six districts had an elected representative, and each fiercely battled for funding while eyeing the next election cycle. That competition, he said, made for a divided council.
"I've worked over 20 years in town management. I've never had a community that's this divided, a council that's this divided," he said. The problems, many dating back at least 100 years, were different than anything he'd seen, and were insurmountable. In resigning he told the Marlin mayor he lacked the skill set needed to deal them. While he understands that tensions and disagreements are likely on any board, Knight said he plans to retire in about a decade and didn't want to spend the last years of his career "fighting those fights" in Marlin.
Knight said he has nothing but respect for those who run for boards or volunteer for committees despite little or no pay and almost certain subjection to criticism. "Let's face it," he said. "People are much more willing to criticize than they are to complement."
During interviews, Knight told the board of trustees that he wants this to be his last job. It's difficult for town managers to work more three to five years in one place anyway, "because the cumulative weight of decisions that get made that people aren't happy with."
While his priorities will be determined by the board, Knight said that in addition to economic issues and day-to-day operations, updating of the town comprehensive plan is high on his list, but is not in the 2017 budget. While not part of his job, his believes his experience in consultation and as a moderator will be beneficial and help draw the public into the process.
Knight attended his first town board meeting last night. In his first days on the job he started familiarizing himself with staff, met with Mayor Charles Stewart, spoke with several board members, attended a meeting on the Rural Jump Start initiative in Delta, and has spent his spare time walking around town and enjoying the live music at Louie's. He understands he'll be considered an outsider for much, if not all of his time here. No matter how many organizations he speaks with or nights he spends listening to music at Louie's, "I'm going to be that person who came in from far away."
Knight loves what he does and believes he's very good at it. "I believe in the profession," he said. In Texas he was state Texas City Management Association and would like to be equally involved in the Colorado City and County Management Association. With so many older people in the profession today, and few younger people studying municipal government, "There's a real question bout where our replacements are going to come from," he said.
He also looks forward to seeing how Paonia grows its economy in the coming years. "I'm a firm believer that a rising tide lifts all ships, that economic development is not a zero-sum game," he said. "It' a positive for everybody."