City Hall transitions boost the value of institutional memory

Michael Mathers’ photographs in Astoria City Hall make a valuable point. His pictures of city employees at work remind us that a municipal corporation is a collection of people with specialized skills and tasks.

Rosemary Johnson’s role in Astoria city government reached well beyond her job title as the city’s planner. Chelsea Gorrow captured the sweep of Johnson’s 35 years of service in a profile we published Tuesday.

As the right-hand to then Community Development Director Paul Benoit, Johnson was at the center of a number of projects that changed the face of Astoria over the past 25 years. Those included cleanup and development of the Mill Pond, exodus of the county fairgrounds and creation of the Gateway Zone, as well as creation and development of the Astoria Riverwalk. She also played an advisory role in the restoration of numerous structures, including the Astoria Column, the Liberty Theater and the Hotel Elliott. As Astoria has welcomed a new wave of homeowners, Johnson has been the city’s go-to person on residential restoration.

Institutional memory is Johnson’s greatest asset. She knows where things came from and she grasps the organic nature of Astoria’s development policy over decades.

Johnson’s retirement, the city’s search for a new city finance director and city manager puts a premium on the value of institutional memory, because so much long-term memory is walking out the City Hall door.

Among some new residents there seems to be an eagerness for thinking the worst about City Hall. This sentiment seems to be uninformed about why Astoria has many of the assets these new residents prize. The truth is that all of Astoria’s advances that have made it a poster child for civic rebirth came as a result of partnerships of government, nonprofit organizations and businesses. The city officials who this group disparage did not stand in the way of progressive ventures. They promoted them.

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