Post Falls Led By Real Home Boy Mayor’s Down-Home Touch Fed By Passion For Town
Mayor S. J. “Gus” Johnson is completely at ease in jeans and tennis shoes, sitting in his home office with his dog, Schultz, curled up at his feet.
A bookshelf full of paperwork from city business sits behind him.
“I spend a lot of time right here,” he said, leaning back in the chair at his desk.
Johnson, 43, has served 18 months as an appointed mayor and last month was elected uncontested.
And the voters who put him in office have a lot on their minds these days - a divisive school bond issue, a desire to attract more commercial development and the myriad problems facing small towns with growing pains.
As mayor, Johnson is right in the middle of the quagmire.
He prides himself on keeping in touch with the public. He emphasizes that he’s “just another taxpayer.”
“My main drive is for the people,” Johnson said. “I hope the people think that they’ve got a mayor who if they see him in Tidyman’s, (they can) say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a problem.”’
So he never misses city council meetings and spends between 25 and 30 hours each week on city business - attending meetings, talking with concerned residents and gathering data on whatever issue the city is facing. He cuts ribbons, speaks at community events and just generally tries to lend an ear, he says.
His wife, Sandie Johnson, laughs about how often residents call to talk to the mayor.
“He’s really down to earth and he’s very accessible,” she said. “He just takes his job very seriously. Post Falls is very important to him.”
Many say Johnson comes across as down to earth and genuine.
“With Gus, what you see is what you get,” said Councilman Scott Grant. “He makes no pretense and he plays no games.”
“I think he’s doing very well. He’s very sincere,” said City Administrator Jim Hammond. He admired Johnson’s desire to explore all sides of issues and to be as fair as possible.
“On the other hand, he’s not afraid of taking a stand at the risk of displeasing constituents,” Hammond said.
Johnson has great enthusiasm for his $9,600-per-year job, said Kerri Thoreson, director of the Post Falls Chamber of Commerce.
“He obviously loves his community. He’s out and about with events and activities,” Thoreson said.
Betty Dougall, who ran for Post Falls city council in November, lauded Johnson’s devotion to understanding the problems the town faces.
“I’ve been very impressed with the way he must research the issues because he usually has some very good points on a certain issue,” she said.
For example, she was impressed at the city’s candidate forum when Johnson outlined his position on the school board to a voter who disagreed with him. He explained what would result with each of the school district’s options for dealing with overcrowding and supported his stance that Post Falls needs a new high school.
Johnson was born and raised in Coeur d’Alene and graduated from Coeur d’Alene High School in 1972. He is a senior chemist at Kaiser Aluminum in Spokane, where he has worked for nearly 25 years.
He got interested in politics after watching a televised Coeur d’Alene city council meeting in which a woman was complaining about her neighbor’s hedge. He didn’t think the council listened to her.
“I felt that lady was not heard. She’s a taxpayer and all taxpayers should be heard,” Johnson said.
So he ran for Coeur d’Alene City Council in 1984, spending $1 on his campaign for a button he bought at a local fair.
“I ran because I thought I was the the opportunity for voters to have someone to listen to the public,” he said, adding that since then, he’s learned that the city council listens to constituents more than he had thought.
In 1985, he moved to Post Falls.
After watching with concern how rapidly Post Falls was growing, he ran for City Council and lost in 1992. In 1994, he ran again and won.
“I’ve always been kind of vocal,” Johnson said, smiling.
The City Council appointed him mayor in July 1996 when Hammond, who had been mayor at the time, resigned to become city administrator. The November election was the first time Johnson ran for the position. He ran unopposed.
City Councilwoman Karen Streeter said Johnson was the reason she decided to seek re-election last month.
“He’s doing a great job and I wanted to be part of that,” she said.
“I think that Gus has the same intentions we all do: that when we leave government, it’s better than when we got there,” Grant said.
One of his biggest challenges, Johnson said, is keeping Post Falls’ small-town character while moving the town forward. He wants top-notch schools and thriving businesses along with controlled residential growth.
“As far as the school situation goes, I’m going to support that school bond 100 percent. I’m going to go door to door and do whatever it takes, whatever I can do,” he said.
The school district has proposed a bond for at least $17.97 million to build a new high school.
When businesses think about locating in Post Falls, one of the things they consider is how supportive the community is of education, he said. That’s why he supports eliminating the two-thirds majority required to pass school bonds in Idaho.
Some individuals and at least one organization - the Kootenai County Property Owners Association - don’t agree that the school district needs a new high school. They want to keep the supermajority and say it protects taxpayers from needlessly high property taxes.
As far as growth is concerned, Johnson said it has leveled out in recent years, partly because the city council has been more reluctant to annex residential areas in the past three years - a position he has advocated.
Someday, after retiring from Kaiser, he would consider running for county commissioner if he thought he could contribute, he said.
Meanwhile, he loves his job as mayor.
“The last thing I want to be titled as is mayor for life,” he said.
“But if I was elected again in four years, I would be honored.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo