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New mayor gives vision for Covington
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Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston hopes to hit the ground running in 2012 and he unveiled his first initiatives Thursday at a Kiwanis' monthly meeting:

- eliminate divisiveness among the council and city
- better inform residents about utility cost reduction programs
- partner with the chamber, school and other groups to improve workforce training
- retain City Manager Steve Horton
- more clearly identify costs and benefits when discussing large capital expenditures

Mayor Ronnie Johnston laid out his first initiatives for the city of Covington at Thursday's Kiwanis meeting and focused on ending the divisiveness that exists in the city and helping residents improve their lives.

After going door to door throughout the city, the mayor crafted his initial, admittedly-ambitious agenda, which he hopes will meet the needs of all residents and show that he can be an effective mayor, despite being a fairly new resident.

"I am going to try to be a great mayor, but I know why I got elected...A lot of people voted for me because I was the best choice considering the choices. But, I hope that and my goal is after the next four years that I'll either get run out of town or you'll vote for me because I'm a good mayor," Johnston said.

Bring the city together
One of his first goals is to bring Covington together and eliminate the divisiveness that exists on the city council and in the community. He knows that the mayor doesn't have much real power, but he hopes to return respect to the council and use good processes during decision making.

"That doesn't mean we'll always agree, but we have to work together in a civilized way; we have to go through the right process and treat each other with dignity and respect," said Johnston, who noted he believes it's proper to address fellow city officials as Mr. and Mrs., not by their first names.

He hopes to be able to develop influence in the community, which requires getting out and talking to people on a regular basis. He wants to create neighborhood "clusters," particularly to reach out to residents who don't have phones or computers.

"It breaks my heart that the city has programs that will help test your house on its utility bill, insulate your house, put in new appliances, and you have rebates where it doesn't cost you anything...a lot of people don't even know. They just don't know," Johnston said. "So it's finding a way to improve our overall communications."

Johnston also wants bring together churches and civic organizations so that groups can be more efficient and help more people.

Getting workers trained
With its $120 million budget and stable tax base, the city can be an economic driver for the county, and Johnston said he wants the city to position itself for growth when the economy recovers.

"We've got the opportunity to get a lot of jobs coming in here in the next year and a half to two years. Some manufacturing, small business, all sorts of jobs. But the truth of the matter is a lot of people are not qualified for those jobs," Johnston said.

The skills of the available workforce cover a wide range. Some residents need basic literacy training, while others need specific technical training. On the advice of a resident, he drove through the parking lot of local industry General Mills and noticed that many tags were from outside Newton County.

"I don't care if you don't charge a penny or cut utilities in half, if you don't have a job it's too high. It's a struggle. What we need to be doing now is get this job training, get our folks ready," Johnston said. "Some of the folks have to step up and take initiative... I want to make them aware of the opportunities we have now."

Johnston wants to get workers ready for the $15 to $20 an hour jobs the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce is recruiting, and that's where he believes churches, civic groups, governments, the chamber and schools can partner together to fill gaps.

"I have some people tell me, ‘Well I thought you was a big conservative, Republican guy.' I do consider myself pretty conservative financially, and I have met people that wanted a hand out. And I say to them, ‘I will help you one time. But from here forward I will continue helping you as long as you go to the training class I got lined up for you. As long as you try to take the steps to improve yourself,'" Johnston said.

"If we really want to move this city forward, if we really want to improve the income per house, you can not ignore these things. We can't have just one side of this town going up like crazy and the other side not. We don't get there if we do, and that's our problem right now...For those that want to improve and find a better tomorrow. Let's go."

January is National Mentoring Month and Johnston also called on all residents to mentor a child in the school system if possible. He and his wife are new mentors. For more information about mentoring visit nonprofit Newton Mentoring's website or contact the Newton County School System directly.

Capital expenditures
Questions about whether to purchase the Norfolk Southern Railroad corridor or the Indian Creek Golf Club deserve consideration, Johnston said, and he promised that he would not bring those issues up for a vote until the council clearly knew the potential benefits and costs of each project.

"If it does not benefit all the citizens of the city, I'm not interested. Period," Johnston said.

Johnston said gathering the benefits and costs before making a decision is the process he'd like to use for all capital expenses, which he said is the same way businesses make capital and investment decisions.

"That should be what makes the decision," he said. "With the way things have been handled in the past, you almost get the feeling that people think something is going to happen to them. That somebody is trying to trick them, and we have to get away form that. I want to be very open."

Retain Steve Horton
One of Johnston's final initiatives, which he's already working on, is to convince City Manager Steve Horton to stay with the city and not retire this summer like he had planned.

"I cannot think of a better mentor for me personally and a better representative for this city. He is a fine, fine man. His whole heart, soul and love is in this city, and I'm going to try to keep him around a little bit."

Johnston said he needs experienced help with the vast operations of the city, which has a budget, $120 million, about twice as large as the dental office company that Johnston and his family owned.

"My first day (on the job) I got home and my dad called. He asked ‘How did it go?' I said ‘I think I learned one thing today... I learned if I don't get in anybody's way I might be pretty successful,'" Johnston said. "There are some good people down here. They're doing a real good job. But I think we can pull some things together and work through some information more effectively."