Lewiston mayor focused on the big and the small

·7 min read

Jan. 23—New Lewiston Mayor Dan Johnson has an eye on the big picture, but the little things still matter.

Just two weeks into the job, Johnson said he has a lot to learn. But he has immersed himself in the challenge, keeping busy with meetings, tours of city facilities and even a surprise visit to some residents upset over the way the street department handled the recent heavy snowfalls.

As part of his pledge for transparency in the city's newly installed strong mayor form of government, Johnson eagerly granted a Lewiston Tribune request last week to shadow him on one particularly busy morning. And while weighty matters were on his agenda, Johnson started the visit by pointing out some small improvements at City Hall that he hopes will pay dividends in how people perceive their public officials.

"If we don't do the little things well, how is the public going to trust us to do the big things well?" he asked.

The large white globe lights that flank the historic building's steps have been cleaned. The frayed state and American flags that fly at its northeast corner have been replaced. A city crew is scheduled to power-wash the lichen and mildew from the granite steps.

Inside the lobby, an employee was working to electrify old, ornate wall sconces that have been unlit since the end of the gaslight era. Johnson said he also wants to make the space more welcoming for the public with other aesthetic additions, like art.

He has already spoken with Lewis-Clark State College President Cynthia Pemberton about getting pieces on loan from the LCSC Center for Arts & History, for instance. And earlier in the week, he asked Beautiful Downtown Lewiston Executive Director Brenda Morgan about making City Hall into a stop on the city's annual Downtown Artwalk.

Johnson also wants to use the building for more events, like those held by the Lewis Clark Valley Chamber of Commerce. And he would like the city to work with local schools to invite students as part of their lessons on government.

The list of small things didn't end there. Johnson pointed to issues like roadside garbage and overgrown brush as other seemingly small matters that can make a big difference in the confidence residents have in their local leaders.

--------

Johnson said he hits the office at 6 a.m. At 9 a.m. sharp on this particular day, he dealt with a ceremonial matter suitable for a mayor's presence: the promotion of a police dispatcher to a leadership position. He made the short walk across 12th Street to the police department, where he still had to be buzzed in because his access card hasn't yet been programmed for that particular building.

Once inside, Chief Budd Hurd greeted Johnson and led him to the basement for the "pinning ceremony" for Ramie Pritchett, who will now hold the title of communications watch supervisor. Hurd said a few words to recognize her achievement, presented a certificate, and everyone posed for the requisite pictures.

Johnson and Hurd had a quick discussion after the ceremony, and then it was time for him to scoot over to Lewiston Fire Department Station 1 (Johnson is a stickler for punctuality). Deputy Chief Greg Rightmier ran him through some of the daily routine, and Johnson asked to schedule a ride-along in the near future. Rightmier and Capt. Chris Jacks got big smiles when Johnson told them his grandfather used to be a Chicago firefighter.

Even though Johnson now holds the position of mayor, he will still be Lewiston's senator in the Idaho Legislature for the rest of the year. He sent Leland farmer Robert Blair to Boise as his substitute during this year's session, but he told Rightmier and Jacks that he will still be pushing draft legislation that would allow greater reimbursements from Medicare for the ground emergency medical transports the department provides.

Johnson said the bill might not become law this year because of the expected short session that typically plays out in election years. But if it makes it through in 2023, he estimated it could save the department as much as $500,000 per year.

"I'll play a minor, background role this session," he said. "I wanted to be there to work on it, but it didn't work out."

After Jacks gave him a tour of the station's engine bays and introduced him to the department's administrative staff, Johnson was off to a quick meeting with his department directors at the Bell Building on D Street. As the team was arriving, Johnson said he hasn't decided whether to hire a professional city administrator to help him with day-to-day operations.

Last year the city council set the mayor's base salary at $80,000. That is well below the compensation earned by former City Manager Alan Nygaard, whose salary and benefits added up to $218,040 under the old form of government, and the idea was to give the new mayor enough room in the budget to hire an administrator if needed.

Johnson said he has talked to multiple mayors and administrators from other cities who advised him to create such a position, but he wants to spend a couple of months on the job to learn its demands before he makes a final decision.

"These are the questions I'm asking myself," he said.

At the director's meeting, the department heads ran through this Monday's city council meeting agenda to make sure everyone was on the same page. Johnson said the weekly gathering helps break down the silos between departments, with Human Resources Director Nikki Province adding that the interaction allows directors to not only be aware of each other's activities, but to offer support.

--------

The next appointment was a tour of the service center on Warner Avenue, where the city stores and maintains many of its vehicles. In light of the heavy snowfalls that struck the area earlier this month, Street Department Manager Jason Thompson ran Johnson through the city's action plan for snow removal and showed the mayor the extensive arsenal of equipment on hand to deal with such emergencies.

Johnson noted that the city's main plan is more than 20 years old, even though it has been updated. He wants to take a closer look at the policy, and one of the first steps in his process was to pay a visit to Bill and Debra Roper's 24th Avenue residence. Bill Roper recently sent the city a letter criticizing the snow removal effort that plowed deep berms into driveways up and down his block, including his.

The street and the berms then iced over, creating a hazardous mess for the residents, their mail carrier and delivery vehicles that frequent the neighborhood, Roper said. His neighbor across the street (who declined to give her name) came over to give Johnson a piece of her mind, noting that Roper wrote his letter on behalf of everyone who lives on their block.

The woman did say she was impressed that Johnson personally came to investigate their complaint. And he even gleaned an idea for the future from Roper, who used to work on Tacoma's city streets. Roper said the mapping system there would show crews footnotes, like a red cross over a diabetic person's residence so they would know to not interfere with its power. He said Lewiston could use such a system to identify streets that residents don't want to be plowed.

Johnson brightened at the suggestion, and deemed the visit a net positive despite the criticism. He said the personal approach will be a feature of his administration, as will valuing everyone's input. He encouraged his constituents to contact him at City Hall — (208) 746-3671 or mayorjohnson@cityoflewiston.org — any time they have an issue.

"If you've got a question, call me," he said. "I think they'll appreciate that their city is listening, and we know they're out there."

Mills may be contacted at jmills@lmtribune.com.