Public service is anything but a foreign concept to Van Johnson, who was inaugurated as mayor of Savannah on Jan. 1. After serving 16 years as First District Alderman, the Savannah State University alum has a plan to reduce violence in the city and increase transparency in the city government.
Johnson continues to act as director of the Chatham County Youth Commission, a position he’s held for more than 20 years. Johnson graduated from SSU in 1990 with a bachelor’s in business administration. He earned his master’s of public administration and public policy analysis from Georgia Southern University.
Johnson was sixteen when he came to Savannah State, soon after becoming president of the freshman class whom he said were called “crabs” by upper classmen.
“I couldn’t stand it, so my thing was hey, let’s involve these freshmen. We had a remarkable freshmen class. At the time there was cassette tapes and stuff, but I knew DJs from New York, and we would have these parties that were just off the chain. People would come in from the army base even,” said Johnson.
He said that the freshmen were beginning to collect so much money from these parties that eventually the school got involved to add the funds to the budget. He said that Savannah State was just the right size for him and became a place where he knew he would be held accountable and supported by his professors.
“I thought at the time, ‘Give me my C, I’m gone’, but I had professors saying that I could do way better than this. They were not afraid if they saw me either at school or in the community not acting appropriately; they would make sure I knew about it. That, plus what I believe to be stellar academic preparation that was specific to my career goals not only in business but in government that pushed me to lay the foundation to where I am today,” said Johnson.
Johnson said he faced various individuals while serving as alderman who said that because he is from Brooklyn he is considered in some circles to be an outsider. Johnson says he didn’t let that intimidate him from accomplishing the tasks at hand.
“For me, it was about meeting people where they were and about being present in the moment. You’ll see me today, you’ll see me tomorrow, I’m not going anywhere. For me, Savannah is a place that I chose,” said Johnson. “For me, I felt like I had a responsibility that while I’m in Savannah to make the most of what I can in Savannah, and that I needed to be able to lend whatever talents I had to Savannah to make it a better place.”
One of the mayor’s primary focuses for policy change and awareness deals with gang violence and crime in Savannah. According to statistics gathered in the summer of 2019 by the Savannah Morning News, the violent crime rate of Savannah, including those reported cases involving robberies, rapes, aggravated assaults, and homicides, has increased by 32% in just a year’s time.
“For us in Savannah, it’s guns, gangs, and drugs. We live in a state where there are far too many guns. Guns can be carried almost anywhere, including to college campuses, and to me that is a detriment to the safety and security of people that live in Savannah and live across our state,” said Johnson.
He also said that gangs and groups that act as gangs create problems for Savannah that need to be addressed just as people selling drugs or trying to obtain them present their own challenges to public safety.
“The challenge remains to be at the forefront of that. To call a thing, a thing, and to be courageous in doing so. To have those courageous conversations with those who are stakeholders in our community about how we can do better,” said Johnson. “People don’t like things being called things. When you mention guns in any context, it brings up very strong emotions everywhere on the spectrum from people who feel we want to take their guns to those who feel we should have no guns in the world.”
The mayor said he is in full support of the second amendment but believes that it should be just as difficult to obtain a gun as it is to get a driver’s license.
“When someone is pulled over for driving a car, we ask them for their license. People can have guns, but we don’t have a right to ask them whether they have a license of the gun that they’re carrying. To me, that doesn’t make sense,” said Johnson.
In Johnson’s office stands a Panhandle Slim art piece Johnson says he purchased with the following quote by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. painted on it, “When a nation becomes obsessed with guns, it loses its social perspective. It dulls the conscience. It strengthens the forces of reaction, and it brings into being bitterness and hatred and violence.”
Johnson said, “We are obsessed with guns. Like John Lennon said, give peace a chance.”
When acting as alderman, Johnson led the vote to lessen the criminal penalty for the possession of marijuana in 2018. Since the passing of the vote, those persons found with marijuana are fined $150 and written a ticket instead of being arrested.
“We were making a lot of arrests for it, and in the end, it was not addressing what the issue was. Although our offices can still make arrests for simple possession of marijuana, in this case, they have the opportunity to not do so if they choose,” said Johnson.
Johnson said he is looking forward to begin streaming meetings on Facebook Live which has never happened before for the city of Savannah so citizens can stay engaged and involved with their government. He also says that he plans to make city council meetings into the evening hours so individuals who have an interest can come see their local government and to reinstate town hall meetings for at least a year’s time.
“I think that’s how you create an attractive government. You give people the opportunity to attract. It’s a huge leap, because we’re making ourselves more accessible, but we’ll see where it goes,” said Johnson. “Our citizens are stakeholders in a $425 million dollar business called the city of Savannah. Our stakeholders elect us as a board of directors and we need to be responsible enough to give them an ongoing status of how their investment is doing. In this way, we pledge to be transparent, be trustworthy, and inclusive.”
With regard to the current diversity of the city council, Johnson said that he believes that the elections reflected a pendulum-like swing as reaction to the previously predominantly white, male council that came before.
“This is the first time probably, that you have people who haven’t been previously involved in politics who are really grassroots community folks that did not have the backings of corporate interests of Savannah. These current members really reflect community concerns, and that is what I think is the game changer for the city. They’ve come in with a really strong, people-versed kind of agenda,” said Johnson.
Johnson concluded the interview with this message for Savannah State students:
“You can get anywhere from here. I am proof-positive of that; I am happy that I won this seat because if a person can come to this institution as a sixteen year old, not having much family here but could stay and work his way to be the mayor of the city, that means that Savannah State Tigers can go anywhere and do anything. They are seriously impressive, and I count myself blessed to be a Savannah State Tiger. I will always be a Savannah State Tiger. There is a Tiger at city hall. Periodt.”