Mayor Ann Johnston described her last council meeting as “bittersweet,” but the sweet was not on view. Only the bitter.
Johnston did what no mayor has done for decades: she stood up to the public employee unions that had gained inordinate influence over Stockton’s treasury and put the general public back in charge.
She would have stood up to developers, too. Elected as a slow-growth mayor, she was ready to fight developers over Stockton’s sprawlish land-use policy. But the recession defused all that.
Never have I witnessed a Stockton mayor more devoted to the public interest over special interests. Her reward: voted out of office.
Some argue she deserved it because of her curious blank spot on crime. The way she promised a crime-fighting Marshall Plan then completely forgot about it is inexplicable. But the Marshall Plan will never be more than a de-silo-ing of the criminal justice system bureaucracy. The fix the public wants — more cops — is largely out of the insolvent city’s reach. No matter who makes promises to the contrary.
In going deep into the process of fiscal reform, Johnston may have lost touch with what the average Stockton voter. Fiscal reform is abstract. A shooting on your block is a clear and present threat. But she did not lose touch with the solution. Fiscal reform —wrestling concessions out of the unions, unburdening the city of unsustainable obligations such as free lifetime retiree medical — is the solution to crime. Less debt equals more money. More money equals more cops. It equals a higher-functioning municipal government in every respect.
She played the long game. Voters — unable to see the long game, or unwilling to — judged the present. But every Stocktonian will benefit from her reforms, even those who hate her for taking away their candy.
It’s too late to say “Be careful what you wish for.” Instead say to the list of Stockton’s challenges — a weak regional economy, the entrenched power of public employee unions and developers – should be added a largely disengaged electorate that favors promises over political courage.