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Johnson on Johnson: The mayor looks back

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Schools. Crime. The city's economy.

Even a cursory glance at media coverage from this year's mayoral election is enough to tell that the issues haven't changed all that much from 1993, when Bill Johnson first swept into the mayor's office in an upset victory.

Twelve years of politics and policies later, are we better off? Perhaps that's not an answerable question, but for many of the changes in this city since then, ultimate responsibility falls to one man: Johnson.

Johnson hasn't shied away from controversy or from making bold and significant changes. For some of these, like the Neighborhood Empowerment Teams, the ferry, and the police reorganization, the jury is still out on their effectiveness.

In some areas, like school district reform, he admits that he didn't achieve all that he wanted.

But if there's a single theme that runs through almost all of Johnson's self-assessment, it's the theme of citizen empowerment. More than anything else, the city's first African-American mayor sees himself as the champion of the little guy and the political outsider. As he leaves City Hall to teach and head a research center at the Rochester Institute of Technology, he says he'll continue to emphasize citizen participation in government.

In a recent interview with City Newspaper, Johnson summed up his own perspective on his years in office. What follows is an edited transcript of that interview:

City: Briefly, what three things are you proudest of?

Johnson: I think the citizen empowerment piece is very, very important: getting people engaged in their own destinies and being a part of determining what resources were required to move their part of the city along. And putting that into a major context like the Rochester 2010 plan and demonstrating that their time was not being wasted.

Every piece of legislation that goes to City Council is tied into one of the campaigns of the Rochester 2010 plan. Hardly anything we do can't be traced back to that. There's this ongoing demonstration that we're committed to implementing it. But just in case people miss that, whenever we do any project in the city you'll see little signs that say: This is part of the Rochester 2010 plan. It shows people, "Ah, they're committed to follow through."

That's important, making government more responsive. I kind of cringe when I hear some of the campaign rhetoric, but I understand, because everybody is trying to say, "I can do things a little better." But the fact of the matter is, we did greatly redefine our internal working plan so that we could be much more customer friendly. We set up response lines with live people on them. We have the customer-service bureau in the Department of Environmental Services, where there's a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week, 365-days-a-year live person there to respond to questions and to deal with problems. Then we decentralized some of our functions through the NET offices by putting them into neighborhoods.

And the third thing that I feel proudest about is that we closed this gap between the haves and the have-nots by inviting just plain ordinary people, neighborhood residents, to be a part of decision making. They could actually deliver some of the largesse of government back into their neighborhoods. I think that that eliminated to a great deal the awesome credibility gap that existed between the poor and the rich.

We fundamentally changed government in 1993. Ours was --- for lack of a better word --- a peasant uprising. We ran against the political powers, and with little resources we beat them. And for 12 years I kept faith. I saw the election of 2005 as a desperate desire on the part of Norwood, Duffy, and Parrinello to restore that kind of patronage-laden government. They should have all known better: those days are past.

The three biggest disappointments?

My biggest one was the inability to have a better relationship with Jack Doyle. I view my experiences with Bob King [Doyle's predecessor as county executive] to be very positive. My experiences with Maggie Brooks were a whole lot better than were to be expected. We have had a real partnership. I could have had that with Jack Doyle. We tried to have that with Jack Doyle.

You know, his personality's strong, my personality's strong, he's not going to let me roll him, I'm not going to let him roll me. But in all of that, there was a tremendous amount of things that took place and got done. But they all got lost because of the public squabbling. If I could ever sit down with Jack Doyle, I would just say to him, "Jack, why couldn't we have done it better?"

There are things he was clearly opposed to. He didn't like my talk of consolidation and metropolitan government. He was just literally furious about that. And he didn't like smart growth. He portrayed it as anti-suburbia and all this sort of stuff.

But then in a moment of candor, he could acknowledge that the very forces we were talking about were causing great distress for the county, because he finally recognized that population was fleeing out of MonroeCounty. But he just couldn't bring himself to be in sync with me on this issue. And that became this big thing between us.

But I would say on the issues of juvenile justice, economic development --- even on the fast ferry for several years.... Doyle was very engaged and working on that. And then for reasons that only he can explain, he just immediately and inexplicably shut down, shut off his support.

Number two is the fact that we could not show greater progress with the CitySchool District. I think many people voted for me based on my very strong pronouncements about reforming the school district, and I think we truly tried. It is an institution that has proven impervious to change. Even now there is a question about how much change has actually occurred, because performance measures have not improved that much. And they haven't been sustained.

And I would say the third disappointment: a lot of things happened during these 12 years. People tend to do forget that. But part of it is that the way the media performs here, and particularly the daily media.

So we kept getting pounded when things were not good in the city, and we never felt a need to launch a full-scale PR campaign, a propaganda campaign.

If I were to add a fourth concern: you and others have criticized me for my unwillingness to get involved in the political process, and it's clear that I probably should have done that. I had no desire to do that, but I now understand things like succession. Maybe if I had been more involved, we could have had a more orderly succession. We could have actually planned.

You take a guy like Wade Norwood. Wade's a very, very smart guy, but he had limited experience. If we had really been thinking about this, we would have exposed Wade to leadership kinds of things, put him in different kinds of positions where he would have gained experience. I just had no stomach, no desire. I never went to an executive committee meeting of the Democratic Party except one time when we were considering whether I should be the county-executive candidate.

I've said I did not run for mayor to be the head of the Democratic Party. But I now realize that comes with the job, and I probably should've been more attentive to that. And perhaps I could have had more of an assurance that these values, these things that we put in place will continue. I wouldn't have to sit and hope and pray that they will.

Besides the fiscal challenges, what are the most serious problems the city will face?

We're on the wrong side of the population movement, pure and simple. We live in a depressed, declining area. It seems unpatriotic and certainly not community-minded to say that, but it is an absolute fact. Very few communities on our side of the Mississippi have been able to turn themselves around, and the ones who have are closest to the center of gravity. We are tethered to old systems. We have old commitments that we are having a hard time honoring.

We see what's happening with Delphi, with General Motors and Ford and the others. They are not going to be able to honor their commitments. And this is creating tremendous shockwaves throughout our society.

The last safe bastion of sort of a guaranteed existence is government. And we have to begin to ask ourselves: is government going to be able to honor its commitments? We've got these huge pension commitments which are embedded in the state constitution. You can't reduce the pension benefit. In the City of Buffalo last year, they were paying for more retirees than they were paying for active workers. This is a recipe for disaster.

How do we somehow reformulate this so that we can capture all this population that's moving away from us? The old bromide's not necessarily the case --- you know, "Oh, high regulation, high taxes, blah blah blah." A place like New York City: people pay high taxes; they still live there.

It's got to be something else. It's got to be that we need to really get in and reexamine, and I think that it is going to require some very radical thinking.

What's keeping us from doing a better job, locally and regionally, in economic development?

Well, the stuff that we do is really small scale. What we haven't been able to do is to score a big win. Just remember the period back in June when we had these announcements every three or four days: Bausch and Lomb, 200 more [new] jobs, Coopervision, 200 jobs. And then out of the clear blue sky, without any warning, Kodak says, "Well, folks, it ain't working, so we're going to take out 10,000 more jobs."

Do we need to find 10,000 jobs to replace Kodak's, or do we really need something larger? I salute Bausch and Lomb, I salute PaeTec for all of their expansion plans. That's wonderful, and we need that. But we've really got to bring brand-new industries into the community. And we haven't been able to do that.

It's not through a lack of effort. I think it's mainly because of the perception that people have about this area, that this is a really a declining area. We've got to inject some vibrancy in it.

At one point you wanted the mayor's office to be in charge of the school district. What would you have done to improve achievement?

The governor proposed letting the mayors appoint a couple of people to the school boards. I kept saying, that is not enough. What I view as the most successful model is in Chicago, where Mayor Daley was actually given total control of the schools. He was given the power to go in and revise labor contracts, hire and fire, to actually make substantive change. And even though there are still some holes in that, Chicago is on the right path. No other community has come close to doing that.

My view was that you change the dynamic by changing the locus of control. And [teachers-union president] Adam Urbanski will always deny this, but he has a pretty powerful influence over the operations of the school district. If all a sudden he had to start fresh in his relationships with a new governing body, perhaps we could actually level the playing field.

I respect the rights of unions. I know that unions have jobs to do, so I'm not trying to bust unions. But we've got to put more emphasis on student achievement.

But the longer I looked at it, the more I came to recognize that what Richard Daley got was a once in a lifetime chance, and that that door had been effectively closed. Once people saw what Daley had been able to do, the unions were never going to allow it.

You can't just change one system. You have to really address every element that's affecting these children and their families: their environment, the neighborhoods in which they live, not just the schools that they attend and what they're learning in the classroom.

I think Manny is right to embrace the Children's Zone concept. But that's a very intensive process, and it requires absolute control over all the elements. Right now nobody's willing to concede that kind of control to the school district. They view the school district pretty much as a failure.

You've been an advocate for regionalism. What did you learn about that issue from your campaign for CountyExecutive?

That people don't understand it. People had been duped into believing that one person had an inordinate amount of power to make changes.

It was a very handy tool for fear-mongering, and Minarik used that tool very handily. The Pac-man ad was extremely devastating. And the fact of the matter is that a lot of stuff goes on in campaigns that never makes it into the public awareness: the whispering, the calls that they make.

Let me tell you, people got up on election morning in 2003 motivated to vote against me. The thing that shocked me was the depths of my loss. I never ever expected it to be quite that bad. And people were going out and voting that probably hadn't voted before, because they had to make sure that they were going to put a nail in this coffin and this guy is not going to rise. But you know what I've learned: you have to begin to plant the seeds.

People are still uneasy about it, but I think they're going to get there. The county continually demonstrates that it has structural budget problems. It's not enough to say that the imbalance of Medicaid funding is creating that. These are obligations that we as county governments must provide everywhere. This is not a choice. They have to provide social services. And we as taxpayers have to pay for them.

[Regionalism] is unavoidable. My view is we should have gotten there sooner rather than later. We should be doing it while we could be doing it in an orderly fashion, rather than reacting in a crisis mode.

And what about the ferry? If you had to do it over again, would you do anything differently?

It is clear that we in Rochester and to a lesser extent in Toronto saw the ferry as a viable economic engine, that it was a way to stimulate tourism, and it was a way not only to deposit more people in Toronto but to divert more people into Rochester.

I think in looking back we should have engaged in a far more aggressive marketing program all along the Thruway. When people get out to get coffee, they should get stuff so they know that there's a ferry. We need to have gotten more stories planted in the media in Upstate New York, because a lot of people are driving to Toronto. And they know no other way to get there except drive.

The second thing is, I think that in our zeal to get it through, and particularly when the city found itself with no other choice but to take it over --- and I'm going to tell you, I was the last person on my administrative team to come to that position, because I felt it was just a no-win situation --- what we should have said right up front is that all public transportation systems in this country are subsidized in some way or another.

But I viewed it as a death pill to say that. And so I said, Look, I believe --- and I still believe this --- that it can be economically self-sustaining. Even now, it is clear that if we can get approximately 300,000 people to buy tickets, we break even.

Three hundred thousand for the seven months that they're planning to run is less than a third of their inventory. They have almost a million seats to be sold during that time. Three hundred thousand is 5 percent of the total population of Greater Toronto and Greater Rochester Metropolitan areas. Five percent of the year-round population. And there are another 6 million people who are said to come through these communities, who are visitors.

Can we take 2 1/2 percent of this market and get it onto the ferry? I don't think that's impossible. But people have got to know about it.

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