By Nick Diamantides
Assistant Long Beach City Auditor James Johnson is hoping the voters will elect him to the 7th District Long Beach City Council Office in the June 8 election. “I am running for office because I want Long Beach to be the greatest possible city that it can be,” he said. “I was born in Long Beach 32 years ago. I’ve had a lot of great breaks in this town.” He noted that he graduated from Long Beach Poly High School, studied economics in the city’s main library and always felt safe on the streets. “So I want to give back,” he said. “I want to make sure this city continues to grow and that people can have the same experiences that I had.”
Johnson came in first place in Long Beach’s April 13 nominating election. He received 2,443 votes, or 44.8 percent of the votes cast. Incumbent 7th District City Councilwoman Tonia Reyes-Uranga came in second. She received 1,685 votes, or 30.9 percent of the votes cast in the 7th District race. The three other candidates (Jill Hill, Jack Smith and Fernando Bernabe) received the remainder of the votes. Because neither Johnson nor Uranga received more than 50 percent of the votes, those two candidates are running against each other in the June 8 election.
Johnson said he hopes to work with the city council to take actions that will increase employment opportunities in Long Beach’s private sector. “I also want to make sure that the city has a balanced budget and safer streets,” he said.
According to Johnson, one of the city’s priorities must be increasing the number of jobs in Long Beach. He stressed that the council needs to do more in the arenas of business retention and attraction. “We need to make Long Beach a place that fosters businesses,” he said, adding that the City of Signal Hill seems to be doing a much better job of that than Long Beach. “There is a reason why Signal Hill has two Home Depots and Long Beach has none,” he said. “There is a reason why Long Beach Boulevard is no longer the avenue of cars and everyone in Long Beach goes to Signal Hill or Cerritos to buy their new vehicles.”
Johnson said that, if elected, he would sit down with Long Beach’s current business people and ask them what the city can do to keep them in town. “There could be a range of things. We need to make sure that our fees are not so onerous that we drive businesses out of town,” he said. “We also need to ask business owners, ‘How can we help you succeed because we see your success as our success as a city?’”
Johnson explained that, after getting input from the business community, he would sit down with the city manager and explore ways to implement ideas to make the city more business friendly, which would help increase its sales-tax revenues, putting more money into the city’s General Fund.
The candidate also stressed that other factors like pension plans for city employees need to be brought under control in order to reduce the city’s expenditures. “We need to work with the employee groups to come up with a sustainable pension plan over the long term,” he said. “The current pension plan is not sustainable. I want to work with the employee groups to develop a system that retains and attracts great employees to the city of Long Beach, but that also allows us to balance the budget.” He noted that, as assistant city auditor working with CALPERS, he saved the city $3.5 million in pension costs recently and voters should take his understanding of the pension system into account.
“In these tough times, we also have to make sure there is absolutely no waste of taxpayer dollars,” he said. “I want to make sure, for example, that we are repairing streets more often than we are replacing them. You can slurry-seal an asphalt street for 30 cents a square foot, but if you let it go without repair too long, that same street will cost $6 a square foot to replace.”
Johnson said that his background as assistant city auditor would bring a lot of value to the council. “We have audited city programs, and we have offered suggestions to use dollars more efficiently,” he said.
Turning to the issue of public safety, he insisted that having a balanced budget is key to being able to make the streets safer. “We need to make sure we have a long-term, fiscally responsible budget so that in the future, we are not faced with Draconian situations like reducing our police force,” he said.
The candidate explained that better budget management would enable the city to afford more of the tools the police department needs to keep the city safe. “We need to find ways to do more with the same amount of money,” he said. “We also need to work more with the city’s residents so that they understand that they need to be partners with the police department in fighting crime.” He explained that, as a councilmember, he would put a lot of effort into increasing the number of neighborhood watch groups in the 7th District.
Johnson dismissed Reyes-Uranga’s assertion that her experience on the council has enabled her to learn how to get things done in the city’s governmental structure and consequently that she would be a more effective leader than Johnson would be. “I don’t think Long Beach is moving in the right direction right now,” he said. “We need someone on the council who can steady the ship. We need some real leadership, and I think my financial experience will be tremendously valuable in making sure that Long Beach balances its budget and continues to provide core services.”
Johnson was hired as assistant city auditor for the city a little more than two years ago. He received a Bachelor of Arts in Economics degree from Harvard University and a law degree from the University of California at Berkley, and he was accepted into the California Bar in 2004.
“This is a critical juncture for the city, and it’s time to put Long Beach on the right path,” he said. “I want to ensure that Long Beach has more jobs, that our streets are getting safer, that our streets and sidewalks are improving. To do that, we need to bring someone on the city council who knows how to be fiscally responsible to get the job done for the long term.”