Candidate Q&A – James Johnson, Decatur City Commission
Decaturish.com contacted every candidate running for office in Decatur and Avondale Estates and provided them with a list of questions. James Johnson is running for District 2 Post B on the Decatur City Commission.
Here are his answers.
1) Why are you running for this position?
I’m a frank guy, so I’ll give you a frank answer: I’m running because I’ve lived in Decatur for 9 years and I’ve grown a little tired of seeing the exact same type of candidate run for office every election. You know who I’m talking about: “I’ve been on the Zoning Board of Appeals the last few years, I graduated from Leadership DeKalb, I’m on the executive committee of my neighborhood association, I hang out with the current Commissioners, so now it’s my time.” There are a ton of people in Decatur who have great ideas about how to make our City and our schools even better, who get upset when they see waste or the implementation of bad ideas, but who don’t necessarily have the inclination to buy a plastic name tag and start knocking on doors. I’m one of those people. This City could use some fresh leaders and fresh ideas. So when I looked at the list of candidates and saw the same old “leadership” guys—including one running unopposed in District 2—I thought “hell, why not?” I am definitely not a politician—I actually hate the process—but if someone like me can run, maybe it will inspire others to take a more active role in Decatur affairs. And that’s a great thing.
2) What makes you the most qualified candidate for the job?
I could give you a long-winded answer about my education, my career and my experience (and I assume that the other candidates will give similar answers) so I’ll answer the question succinctly—I am a problem solver who is not afraid to give straight answers.
3) Decatur’s decreasing diversity is a concern for many in the city. Are you concerned about Decatur’s diversity? If so, as an elected official, what will you do to promote diversity in the city of Decatur?
I think there’s a reason why we all live in Decatur and not East Cobb. I don’t want to live in a place where everyone is just like me. But let’s be clear what we’re talking about when we discuss “diversity” in Decatur—we’re talking about gentrification. We’re talking about economic forces (namely, tax rates and property values) forcing classes of people out of Decatur. To be frank, a lot of us are complicit in this, at least indirectly. We are willing to impose higher taxes on our neighbors in order to support our schools. We like it when decrepit houses get torn down and new infill gets built. We like our property values going up. All of this comes at the expense of “diversity.” It really bothers me when people say that lack of “diversity” is a problem and then drive home to their new million-dollar infill house, completely oblivious to the fact that they have contributed to the problem.
I’m a realist on this issue. Unless we want to place tight restrictions on new construction, or fund CSD with taxes that can vary by income or age, there is not a whole lot we can do about these economic factors. I support additional homestead exemptions for seniors and low-income families. I support additional development fees on new infill construction that would be paid directly to the school system and, hopefully, would offset some of the revenue lost through additional homestead exemptions. But, ultimately, my job is to implement the decisions of the residents of District 2, and it is up to those residents to decide what they want their community to look like.
4) Closely linked to the above question is a question about the cost of living in Decatur. High home prices and taxes are pricing many out of the city. What role should the city play in addressing this issue?
Again, short of placing restrictions on new construction or adjusting school taxes, there’s not a whole lot the city can do to address these market forces. As noted above, I support additional homestead exemptions for seniors and low-income families that will be offset by development fees obtained from builders of new infill construction.
5) Relationships between the city of Decatur and City Schools of Decatur have been strained at times. What will you do to improve the relationship between the two?
I will meet with my colleagues at CSD every chance I get. There is no need to silo off the functions of city management and school management. I have definite ideas about how a school system should be managed (my wife was a teacher in some pretty lousy systems), but am not afraid or unwilling to hear what the school board thinks about any particular issue. Ultimately, we’re all on the same side.
6) Decatur has several apartment projects in various stages of development. Do you support the continued development of apartments in Decatur? Why or why not?
I am generally in favor of continued apartment development in Decatur, especially downtown. We live in a great city with tons of great restaurants and cool bars. I don’t think it’s fair to deny someone the ability to live in this city and enjoy those things just because they can’t afford a house. Especially when there is still room for apartment development that will not impact parks or green space.
7) Community groups in Decatur have expressed a desire for more green spaces, like parks. If elected, what will you do to promote the development of green space in the city?
We need to take an immediate inventory of areas that are either already green spaces (i.e., undeveloped parcels) or can be transformed into green spaces (abandoned buildings and infrastructure) and take short-term steps to dedicate those areas. We have to plan for the future now, and the dedication of green spaces is not something that can be done on a perpetual basis.
8) Being a commissioner will require working closely with the city manager of Decatur. Are you satisfied with the performance of City Manager Peggy Merriss? Why or why not?
I am. In my limited experience dealing with Ms. Merriss, she seems very responsive and gets things done. I have no concerns about working with her.
9) What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the city of Decatur?
Maintaining a highly-rated school system that is dynamic and flexible as enrollment numbers increase. Let’s face it—the schools are why most of us live here. As school systems grow, there is an institutional tendency to become top-heavy at the expense of teachers and students. I am concerned that we’re already seeing this trend in CSD. We need to continue to ensure that our resources go directly to students and teachers, not unnecessary administration and infrastructure.
10) What is Decatur’s greatest strength as a city?
At the risk of pissing some right-leaning people off, Decatur’s greatest strength is its well-educated and progressive citizens. The strengths of these things are self-explanatory.
11) If elected, do you promise to behave in an ethical and transparent manner?
Absolutely. If elected, I’ll hold public meetings with my constituents before every Commission meeting so that I know how they feel about particular issues coming to a vote. I’ve already pledged not to accept the (admittedly modest) salary that comes with this position, and I’ve pledged to serve only one term. I challenge the other candidates to take these pledges. We can use the money saved to fund a scholarship or, at the very least, a second cash register at Revolution Doughnuts.
The election is Nov. 3 and early voting begins on Oct. 12.