Bob Johnson will hand over the gavel at Wednesday's Lodi City Council meeting, ending his second term as mayor.
On Nov. 29, Johnson sat down with a reporter to reflect on his time as mayor, what he sees as challenges during the next year and how his time as mayor this year differed from his term in 2004.
Johnson discusses the city looking at more privatization, a survey he conducted of private and public benefits in Lodi, and why he wants you to get out of your recliner and tell the council what you think about local issues.
Q: What are your thoughts on handing over the mayor position?
A: (Compared to) when I was mayor before, it seems to have been a lot busier this year, and I'm not too sure why.
Maybe it's because I'm retired now, and I wasn't before. Maybe it's because of the economy and the predicament the city is in now. Not knowing who the next mayor is going to be, they may see a continuation of what I feel has really been hectic.
Q: Are you relieved?
A: To a certain extent, yeah. We don't have a strong mayor concept in Lodi, and I'm not advocating for that at all, but you wonder how these people in other communities do it four years in a row. It's demanding.
Q: How has this year compared to 2004?
A: We are more stressed over the economy. We've had to make cuts, not only in personnel but in services. We are constantly looking over our shoulders waiting for the next shoe to drop.
A great example of that was Tuesday's morning shirtsleeves, where we saw a whole department (Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services) that is laying it all on the table and asking, "What do you want us to do?"
The comment was made about maybe privatizing some functions, like park maintenance. I think that should be looked at.
Everything has got to be examined. We are concentrating on the most recent problem, Parks and Rec, but the problem is endemic in all other departments, too. Everybody has got a problem.
Q: You mention privatization or contracting out services like parks maintenance. Are there any services that you would not contract out?
A: Somebody said recently that water is an essential service. I'm paraphrasing, but they said, "You would never ever consider contracting out police and fire."
There are communities in the United States that do have contract services for police and fire. I'm not advocating that we look at it, but to respond to your hypothetical question, is there anything that should be sacred? I don't think so. I think anything should be looked at.
There are communities that have in the past combined police and fire. Each police officer in their car has a set of turnout gear. Is that something I'm advocating? Not necessarily. But is it something that should be discussed in hard economic times? Why not?
Sometimes we either as a council or as a community say, "Oh my gosh, we can't do that." But we can at least consider it. Whether we do it or not remains to be seen.
Q: We previously discussed the city hiring an economic director, possibly part-time or contracted. What do you think about that now?
A: I'd still love to do it, but it's not in the cards. You can't justify bringing someone on board when you're laying off people. I'd love to see it happen, and maybe one day it will, but now it's not appropriate.
Does that mean that I have given up on trying to find ways to become more aggressive in the economic development area? No.
Q: In what ways should the city be more aggressive?
A: Have we got everything lined up that we can possibly line up so that when someone knocks on our door, we can say, "Here's what we have to offer"?
Any realistic concessions you can offer to keep businesses in town growing and to attract new businesses is a worthwhile investment.
Just hypothetically, what would it be worth to bring another General Mills into Lodi? How much would you be willing to pay to bring a couple automobile dealerships in here? You are making an investment, and I think that we have to be prepared to do that. We are losing businesses to other communities that are more or better situated than we are. We have got to find a way to make sure we are on the same level playing field as these other communities.
We have been so distracted by our immediate problems that we may not necessarily be forward looking enough.
Q: What is your greatest achievement in the year that you have been mayor ?
A: I don't know whether there has been a great, single achievement of the year. I would say over the past year or couple of years, it has been the continual fiscal stability.
We have been able to start some capital projects. Not all have been warmly accepted, but we are investing in the community. Our bond ratings are solid.
So despite all the pain and suffering that we have gone through, on the other side of the ledger we are doing pretty damn good.
We've gotten communities that are spending their reserve just to stay afloat. We are building reserves. Has that been easy? No. Has that been painful? Has it made people mad, maybe, internally and externally? Yeah, but I think it's been a real prudent move on the part of the council.
Q: What is your opinion on where the council and city employees are as far as pensions go?
A: The city employees have stepped up to the plate. I've said that publicly time and time again. Anybody who is close to the issue has got to realize and appreciate what they have done. But I have thought for a long time and continue to think that we need structural changes. We are in labor negotiations, and how it shakes out with the council and the bargaining units remains to be seen. We can't afford the pension process and programs that we have now.
Q: What types of changes?
A: Up until now, our employees have not paid anything for their retirement. You see a lot of communities up and down the state negotiating that change with their bargaining units. Will that happen in Lodi? We'll find out.
As an example, state law says if you are a public safety employee, you can pay up to 9 percent of your retirement, and 7 percent for non-public safety. There are communities now where people have negotiated contracts and employees are paying 25 percent. It can't be forced, but it's a negotiated process.
Is a two-tiered retirement system in the future? In my mind, absolutely.
Q: People in the business world often say that they believe public benefits are significantly better than private. Do you think that's true?
A: Several months ago, I did an unscientific survey of benefits in this community — public versus private. I asked 17 employers around the city, large and small, some with 1,000 employees, some with less than 50 employees.
I gave them a list of 20 questions and I asked: "Do you provide this or that to your employees?" The disparity in the answers versus the public sector was phenomenal.
Q: What do you mean by phenomenal?
A: There are some businesses out there that don't pay for sick days. There are some businesses that don't pay for bereavement leave. So there's a gamut of differences of what happened in the public and private sector that I felt were glaring as far as many of these questions and responses were.
Q: Obviously you have been involved in city government for many years. Do you feel like public engagement has increased or decreased?
A: I'm a little bit perplexed. When things are good, everybody is happy. When things are bad, everyone has an opinion, but many times the opinions aren't made to us.
We get emails all the time, and many times it's from the same people on the same subject. Where is everybody else? Where are the people we don't hear from all the time? Why not? We are in an age in which communication is so ... easy. Everyone virtually has email. I'm in the phone book. Go to the city website, you'll find my cellphone number.
Most of us on the council have said for a long, long time, "Hey, tell us what you think." More often than not, we make a decision based on what we think is the right direction, and I'm not second-guessing myself, but then all of a sudden, people are like, "What were you thinking?"
Unless you tell me what you're thinking, I can't pump that into my decision. Get out of your Barca-lounger, and tell me what you want. I need input.
Q: What are the challenges you see in 2012?
A: I think it's more of the highlights that we discussed. The money issue. The level of services issue, and it also depends on who the next mayor is, and what their outlook is.
Mine was economic development. I would love to see us work more toward that. Another mayor may not feel that strongly, or it might not be at the forefront. Everyone brings their own thought process to the table.
So it remains to be seen. What is the new mayor going to push to the forefront?
Q: Are you going to run in 2012?
A: I'm anticipating it, yes.
A: I don't have a good answer. I just like the heck out of it, and I think I bring some benefit to the community. It's important to like what you do. If this thing was such a drudge, I probably wouldn't consider running again, but I genuinely like being on the council.
I've told people for decades, I'm fascinated by local politics. I never, ever, ever will run for a higher office than city council.
Q: Where do you see Lodi in 10 years?
A: I see it probably as relatively compact as it is now. I don't see it as sprawling or as extreme as maybe the direction of some of the cities in our county has gone.
I think we will be fairly compact, and orderly. We've got a good General Plan. Our biggest problem is to generate more local jobs and work toward that. We need to find a way to maintain the services our community wants and needs. So that means we need to find a way to fund those.
I've been here 32 years. We had 35,000 people when I came here. Now, we have 63,000 to 64,000. What has really changed?
Livable, lovable Lodi was the cliche then. Moving forward 30 years can livable, lovable Lodi still be a cliche? And I think it can be.