Talks about engaging citizens and his vision of hope and practice
By Chris Levister –
Rikke Van Johnson is annoyed by pessimists who bellyache about city government but who are unwilling to roll up their sleeves and help change things for the better. He thinks that it’s ridiculous for people to be without jobs, safe clean housing, and access to quality education. That you shouldn’t have to jump through hoops to get City Hall’s attention when you’ve got a complaint or a bright idea. But unlike your typical bellyacher, the San Bernardino City Councilman who represents the 6th Ward is able to change things.
Johnson is a man with a mission to move forward the state’s eighteenth largest city indigenous people originally referred to as “The Valley of the Cupped Hand of God”.
It’s early morning and the light is still soft. Dressed in a dark suit crisp white shirt and tie, Johnson stands at the intersection of California Street and Baseline Road glaring at a traffic signal that drives many a motorist traveling this busy route to, well - cuss.
“It’s a damn shame you have to wait this long for a traffic light to change from red to green,” rants Jose Flores who on any given morning sits in a long line of vehicles waiting to drop off his son at nearby Arroyo Valley High School. “It’s maddening,” says special needs school bus driver Madilyn Patterson Berry who is among those discussing solutions to the bottleneck that occurs when buses and other vehicles driving south on California are forced to wait in long lines to cross Baseline.
“It’s particularly frustrating at 7:00 in the morning when it can take up to five minutes to merge from a side street onto California. When you get to the signal at Baseline you often have to sit there another 3 minutes waiting for the light to change. A few feet from that you’ve got the left turn signal at State Street. That’s like molasses too,” says Berry. “People start blowing their horns they get mad. They report you. They don’t know school buses can’t make a right turn on a red light. It’s really bad they need to do something.”
Johnson charged with stick-handling everything from tricky politically charged issues to creating jobs and infrastructure development welcomes the feedback.
“The buck stops here. I want to hear the people’s concerns,” he says. “This is a long standing problem. We’ve had a number of accidents along this stretch including a fatality in 2002.
Suggesting there is a McDonalds approach to solving many of San Bernardino’s problems he offers a no frills solution.
“Push California Street which dead ends here into the parking lot of the high school and create a new safer entrance to the school. That would alleviate the congestion on California and State Street.”
Unfortunately not every problem facing the city is that easy to solve.
“No question as with many projects on my list – funding is a sticking point.” All the while Johnson keeps a laser focus on the big picture – “move forward – keep San Bernardino moving forward.”
He points to the city’s top three priorities:
“Revitalize downtown, complete the 215 freeway expansion project and move the San Bernardino airport ahead.”
Johnson says the Inland Valley Development Authority is working hard to attract passenger carriers, and logistic operations such as trucking and air cargo. The Hillwood development corridor is a force driving the region’s job base,” he said.
Johnson says with the rough and tumble 2009 city election in the history books City Hall is looking to the future. He says he’s encouraged by the addition of new faces on the City Council.
“We won’t always agree on the issues but we’ve got an engaged team, a new cutting edge City Manager and Police Chief both of whom are focused on what I like to call a vision grounded in hope and practice,” he said.
“Our greatest challenge is to carry the vision and practices of active and engaged governance and citizenship to a new level.”
Johnson believes programs and practices employed by Mayor Pat Morris and other city leaders are demonstrating the potential and power of active leadership by engaging citizenship.
“When people have the chance to make a difference on the issues that they care about they will get involved. We’re asking people from all parts of our city, what are your hopes and dreams,” says Johnson.
He insists elected leaders, community groups; businesses; unions; nonprofits; schools and colleges must become more inclusive in leadership and be willing to work in multi-racial coalitions on public issues such as job creation, housing, racism, race relations and immigration. “The more they see the vitality of what is happening in their own communities, the more powerful the city becomes as an engine for community problem solving.” He says at first glance, issues of growth and development may appear to focus on technical topics such as zoning, land use planning and transportation design.
Yet growth is closely tied to down-to-earth challenges and opportunities that are central to everyone’s quality of life, he said.
“Problems are always a syllable away,” said Johnson. “We have to dare to imagine for the year of 2010 and beyond. We have to keep moving forward – bit by bit.”