COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Aaron Johnson has lived in Columbia since 2002, when he entered the University of South Carolina. He also owns the F-Stop photography store in Five Points.
Johnson says he is "completely removed from the inner workings of the political machinery that has installed itself in our community."
Below are some questions WIS sent to all candidates for Mayor of Columbia. We'll add the responses to the questions below as we receive them. Be sure to check back soon!
NAME: Aaron Johnson
EDUCATION: Bachelor's Degree in Media Arts, University of South Carolina, Class of 2006
PROFESSION: Entrepreneur. Businesses: The F-Stop (vintage camera shop), Pretty Penny Productions (video production), Penelope Design (web & graphic design).
MARITAL STATUS/CHILDREN: Single. No children.
POLITICAL EXPERIENCE: I've never run for office. I do have experience working as a volunteer and on boards and committees with non-profits, school districts and the business community. I am on the Tax Advisory Committee for City Council.
HOBBIES: I'm a film-maker, first and foremost. I've dabbled in 19th century wet plate photography, medieval armor reproduction, writing, acting, horseback riding, beer brewing, golfing, studying steam engines, tailoring and countless other projects. I'm sort of addicted to learning new things.
FAVORITE FOOD: Fried Plantains, Dominican-style.
PETS: Three cats: Edison, Dewey and Stokey. One dog: Captain Ernest Shackleton. I have a fish without a name because every time I name a fish it dies. Our office has a hedgehog named Div. My horse, Tank, passed away a few months ago and I miss him dearly. I like animals.
QUESTIONS (word limit per answer: 300 words)
Q: Why are you running for mayor?
A) I've been active in this city for years, now, and I've learned that if you want to accomplish anything you have to "lead from below." Every time I've ever been involved with planning something in the arts or the business or the non-profit community, the first thing you have to figure out is how to accomplish your goals in spite of city government and how you will work around the road blocks that city government will inevitably place in your way. I am also deeply upset that almost all of my friends who graduated from USC with me have since moved to other cities. I want to make this a city where the leadership works with the community to develop an environment where young people will be excited to stay and raise families and build businesses and make art. Through decades of lackluster leadership, Columbia remains an empty vessel, a blank canvas. We can sculpt this town into whatever we want. We are limited only by our imagination, and as a creative person, as a builder, that prospect excites me.
We are at a crossroad. If we continue down the same path we've traveled for the last couple of decades, I believe it will doom us as a city. But I believe there is another course to chart. It will require careful planning and leveraging of our resources. It will demand leadership that will challenge the people of this city and inspire the disparate, divided cross-sections to come together. But I know we can build a great city if we can overcome our differences and attack the difficult problems we face head on.
Q: What is the most important issue facing Columbia right now? How do you intend to address it?
A) The one issue that really affects every other issue in this city is the budget. If we can't control our spending and find creative ways to improve efficiency and reduce waste then our city will be in tremendous trouble in very short order. Columbia's leadership needs to stop focusing on the short-term effects of the decisions they make and develop a long-term plan that will provide for the basic functions of city government first and foremost. We should not rest until we are properly funding and running our public safety, water and sewer and transportation programs. Then we can begin developing efficient programs that will allow us to grow and flourish as a functioning community.
Q: What mistake in your life do you hope others, especially young people, will learn from?
A) Occasionally, in the past, I have made business deals with people who I knew, in my heart, should not be trusted. In hindsight, almost every bad deal I've ever made and every instance where someone has taken advantage of me and my good will could have been avoided if I would have just went with my gut. I've since learned to trust my instincts and if something seems to be too good to be true I will usually take a pass on it. One mistake I'm glad I never made was leaving Columbia. I was tempted to leave for L.A. or New York after I graduated, but I am very happy that I decided to stay in Columbia and build my businesses here. This is a great city and I want to make it an environment where young people can feel welcomed and flourish.
Q: In 2009, the City of Columbia made millions of dollars in cuts to both the police and fire departments. If elected, would you work to restore those jobs or are the departments fully equipped to keep the city safe as they are staffed currently?
A) Absolutely. If we aren't safe then nothing else matters. And that goes for every section of the city. I subscribe to a service called Nixle.com and everyone in the city should sign up for it. It sends you a text message every time a violent crime occurs in the city and there is a tremendous, terrifying level of violent crime in this city. Most of it happens in neighborhoods that a lot of us drive by every day but never go into. Technology like Nixle is amazing and wonderful for connecting our community and raising awareness of problems that might otherwise remain concealed.
In short, public safety must be our top priority. Some of us have the luxury of living in gated communities with private security, but the vast majority of us stand to suffer tremendously if policing and fire coverage are inadequate. If my loved ones are in danger of being robbed, raped or murdered then I simply will not stand for it.
Q: (Viewer submitted) Earlier this month, there were several reports that the City of Columbia and Richland County Unified Fire Service contract might be in jeopardy. However, an independent study conducted by the University of South Carolina titled, "The impact of improved public protection classification ratings on homeowners' insurance rates in Richland County," has shown that taxpayers save upwards of $5.5 million annually due to lower homeowner's insurance rates each and every year as a result of having the city and county fire service combined. Do you support that the city and county work to continue this public safety agreement?
A) Yes. We must work with the county to salvage this relationship and restore it to a compromise that satisfies all parties. I am well aware of the fact that my house and my body are both flammable, and I'm even more aware that the men and women of the fire department risk their health and lives every day to protect our lives and property. Petty political squabbling between county and city officials is a terrible reason to dispense with a system that has been proven to work.
Q: What is your detailed plan to make Columbia a safer place to live? Give specifics. Where can we improve? Where are we already strong in public safety?
A) We need to figure out why we have so much turnover in the police department. We need to compensate our police officers fairly and we need to keep our officers in our city where their experience will be a tremendous asset. Training a new hire after an officer leaves costs tens of thousands of dollars. That's a result of short-sightedness. If we spend more money today to keep officers well equipped and duly compensated, we will save money in the long run because we won't have to continue the treadmill process of training new hires to replace fed-up officers who leave to find better employment elsewhere.
We need to pick up the slack when it comes to fighting gangs. The sheriff's department has been fighting our gang problem for us and we only have one gang specialist in the police department. We need an organized community resource force that will work with community leaders and develop a positive relationship between officers and citizens in high-crime areas. We need to crack down severely on aggressive panhandling, vandalism, loitering and other problems associated with the chronically homeless.
Q: (Viewer submitted) Over the past several years, the city has lost jobs due to several companies moving to its neighboring communities. What is your plan to retain the existing employment opportunities and expand upon them?
A) The answer is small business. If we can grow small businesses from within and attract them from without it will strengthen our base and make us less susceptible to economic devastation when one business fails. To me it's a matter of distributed risk, or, to put it another way, not putting all of our eggs in one basket. Small businesses are the number one employers in America and small businesses have roots and a stake in our community.
I would really love to see an emphasis placed on growing small businesses in parts of town that are in economic decline, especially if they are started by residents of those communities. We should encourage support services for small business owners like the Small Business Development Center and Retired Executives programs to help guide them to the right decisions as they build and expand their businesses.
Q: What will you do to balance preservation with progress in Columbia's historic business district and neighborhoods?
A) I'm a huge history buff and the character and charm of our historic neighborhoods is one of our most vital assets. I live in Melrose Heights, an historic community, and I've experienced the positives and the negatives of our preservation policies. History and preservation is important, but we also need to allow for technological, environmentally friendly improvements like energy efficient windows and solar panels.
Q: What commitment are you willing to make to the people of Columbia on reviewing and balancing the finances of the city under your watch?
A) The very first thing we need to do is make a plan. In the business world, you don't do anything without a plan of action and measurable goals. The city has been riding by the seat of its pants for far too long, now, and we need to do a "top-down inspection," as my good friend and district 2 candidate Gary Myers says, reviewing every aspect of our city's underpinnings and making adjustments and changes as necessary. This process must include as many brilliant minds and bold leaders from every level of the city.
I am confident that if we stop making the same mistakes just because "that's the way things have always been done" and we start planning for the long haul we can build a better, stronger city that is financially stable and poised for growth.
Q: Columbia's arts groups are desperate for additional city funding. Would you support increasing the hospitality tax to help these groups?
A) As an artist, and an active member of our arts community, I understand the vital role the arts play in our community in building our Creative Class and attracting knowledge workers to enhance our economy. The hospitality tax was poorly conceived to begin with and it has been poorly implemented. For one thing, less than half of the hospitality tax revenues go to the arts. That's simply not truth in accounting. If we would spend the money the way it was designated from the beginning, there would be no need to raise taxes to make ends meet.
That said, my plan for the arts is to establish an Arts Services Office. I've been told by several experts that such an office could be operated for a quarter million dollars per year and would save us two million dollars in direct funding without reducing capacity. The office would accomplish these goals by leveraging assets amongst flagship arts groups and providing services to individual artists and smaller arts groups and by building audience participation for arts events and programs throughout the city.
Q: How do you plan to keep the CMTRA funded and solvent in the coming years? Does it include increasing ridership among young professionals?
A) Our bus system is a critical component of our city's infrastructure. We need to almost triple the funding for the bus program just to meet the standards of our peer cities. One misconception is that the bus system is not run at capacity. In fact, we are under-served geographically and the buses run at 97% capacity during peak times (i.e., rush hour). A well-run bus system is an asset for everyone in the city, not just those who rely on it.
There are people who spend thirty minutes to an hour fighting traffic every morning only to stay in their offices for 8 hours and then fight traffic for another thirty minutes to an hour to get home at the end of the day. To me, a much more positive experience would be to participate in a park-and-ride system where you can relax, read and sip coffee during your commute. I would also love to be able to catch a bus to go downtown so I don't have to fight traffic every time I need to pay a bill or meet a client.
In addition, if we lose our bus system terrible things will happen. The people who rely on the buses will become economically inert and our air quality level will become intolerable. As a result, the EPA will pull federal funding from our city, which will cost each tax payer about forty dollars per year. If we make the long-term decision and assess an extra five dollars per tax payer that can be avoided. So funding the bus system will actually save us thirty five dollars per year in the long term.
Q: Your potential successee served more than 20 years as mayor. Should there be term limits for the position? Why or why not?
A) Absolutely. I believe term limits reduce the opportunity for officials to build exclusive political machinery and keeps fresh blood and fresh ideas rotating through. It also precludes career politicking and it encourages our leaders to make good decisions in the time they have. It's just good for democracy to have as many participants as possible.
Q: Do you support a plan to give Columbia a strong mayor government? Should the mayor have more power and what good would it do for the city?
A) I philosophically support a strong mayor system, but only if it comes coupled with term limits. A strong mayor without term limits has far too much potential to install a powerful political machine. But a strong mayor with term limits attaches an identity to policy and holds the personality in charge accountable for the decisions that are made. It helps voters to distinguish where problems and solutions are coming from.
Q: What is your plan to reduce crime and increase confidence in the City of Columbia Police Department?
A) First we have to fund it. Police officers need to be respected and compensated and given the tools, training and equipment they need to protect us. Next, we need to build a strong and well-designed community resource component into our law enforcement structure. Every officer should be an ambassador of good will in our community and every neighborhood should have a resource officer who is trained to lead and find solutions for the problems that face that particular community. Finally, we need a dedicated gang activity task force.
Q: (Viewer submitted) How would you change the city's culture of spending and prioritize projects? How would you change this spending culture on all levels of city government?
A) Again, planning is key to preventing these sorts of financial crises from rearing up again and again. Priority should be given to the basic, critical functions of government – public safety, water and utilities and public transportation. Then we can build on that base with arts, education and other cultural programs.
Q: Do you support investing more money into the revitalization of the North Main Street corridor? Why or why not?
A) Absolutely! North Main street has been shamefully neglected for far too long. We need to stop pitting neighborhood against neighborhood and community against community. Divisions based on race, location or income bracket need to be done away with completely. Columbia is one big ship and we are all in it together. If we don't work together and build the infrastructure to tolerable levels throughout this city then we will all be doomed to the same fate.
That said, as I've described above, the TIF is a terrible plan for North Main and for our city and I would rather see us find more a financially sound, less risky pathway to healing North Main.
Q: What's the best thing about living in Columbia?
A) The people. We have so many wonderful, caring, creative people in this city. We do great things despite our city government. Imagine what we could do with a leader who embraces positive change and who challenges the people to do even more to make this city great!