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City Council Members Appoint John Willis as St. George’s New City Manager by Mark Eddington

February 14, 2023 by Nicole Mason
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St. George • Elected leaders in southern Utah’s most-populous city cast a wide net in looking for a new city manager but wound up filling the position in-house after a nationwide search.

City Council members voted unanimously Thursday to appoint John Willis as St. George’s new city manager. Willis, who has been serving as interim city manager since Nov. 1, was chosen from over 64 applicants.

In congratulating Willis during Thursday’s meeting, Council member Gregg McArthur characterized his hire as a real catch.

“As we looked at the applications that came in … we saw [that] what we had in an interim city manager is exactly what, in my opinion, we need for the city of St. George,” McArthur said.

Mayor Michele Randall, who was not at the meeting, also lauded Willis’ selection.

“John is just what we need in a city manager,” Randall stated in a Jan. 19 press release. “He is a tremendous leader, possesses an enduring love for the City of St. George, has a significant background in land use, has a great rapport with our city employees and provides a steady hand as we navigate our path forward.”

Willis is replacing Adam Lenhard, who was forced to resign last fall after he refused to comply with the council’s demand to revoke the permits for the HBO “We’re Here” show that was staged June 3 at the city’s Town Square Park. He was later awarded a confidential $625,000 settlement to avoid legal action for wrongful termination.

Prior to serving as interim city manager, Willis logged nearly a decade of service to St. George, first as the city’s planning and zoning manager and then as community development director. He also served as a senior land use and environmental planner for Mesquite, Nevada, and a planning coordinator for Draper. All told, Willis has more than 17 years of experience dealing with land use, planning and zoning issues.

“He has deep roots here. He has an in-depth knowledge that others wouldn’t have,” McArthur said. “And as he has been an interim [city manager] just for a short time, he has shown his ability to lead the city in a great direction … I couldn’t be more excited to have him as our city manager.”

A St. George native, Willis graduated with an associate’s degree from then-Dixie State College. He subsequently earned a bachelor’s in urban planning from the University of Utah and a master’s degree in community development from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Notwithstanding Willis’ St. George roots and experience, what impressed Council member Michelle Tanner was his reluctance to accept the city manager position.

“You weren’t in this for the power, the glory,” she said. “I love your humility.”

For Willis, life has come full circle. At Thursday’s meeting, he recalled his first introduction to municipal government years ago when he attended a meeting at a city recreation center as a 15-year-old to show support for the city building a skatepark. He said he was grateful for the opportunity he has now been given to help lead St. George.

“We have a great city, we have a great mayor and council, and I feel very blessed to be in this position,” he said.

Willis takes the helm at a challenging time. Between July 2020 and July 2021, St. George area had the highest growth by percentage of any metro area in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That growth has put considerable strain on the city to keep pace by providing more infrastructure, public safety and affordable housing.

With that and other challenges in mind, Council member Jimmie Hughes — who was presiding over the meeting as mayor pro term in Randall’s absence — offered Willis some timely advice:

“Get to work, man!”

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