Incoming City of Johnstown mayor Vern Jackson has always been interested in politics, but as a federal employee was barred by the Hatch Act from running for public office for much of his adult life.
He retired in 2006 after 36 years at the Social Security Administration. Last November, after a death on the city council, former mayor Michael Julius appointed Jackson as a councilman in the fourth ward.
And now Jackson, who will be 66 next month, is finishing out the term of his friend Julius, who himself passed away in July.
“I miss him every day. He was a local boy who wanted to do good by the city and he left us too early,” said Jackson.
Jackson was approached by the Fulton County Republican Committee about running for mayor and ran unopposed in both the primary and the general election. He’ll serve as mayor of Johnstown in 2017, at the end of which the city will hold another mayoral election. Former council member-at-large Cynthia Lakata is functioning as interim mayor until the end of December.
Jackson said Johnstown has historically skewed Republican, and the fact that Julius was a Democrat never affected their friendship of 30 years. The two used to trade friendly barbs about Jackson’s love for the New York Mets versus Julius being a Yankees fan. But they worked well together and found common ground as fans of the NY Rangers hockey team.
When he was approached by the county Republicans about running for mayor, the first thing Jackson did was consult his wife and two adult children.
“They said ‘it’s something you always wanted to do dad, go for it,’” he said.
Jackson, who also served 25 years in the Navy, first on active duty and then as a reservist, said he’ll be looking to aggressively tackle the issue of blight in Johnstown.
“I dread the thought of people driving through the city of Johnstown and seeing the blight - it doesn’t reflect well on the city,” he said.
Although Julius did his part to combat the problem of run-down and derelict properties in the city, Jackson said, he thinks he has a greater interest in holding property owners accountable and ridding the city of distressed buildings.
He plans to leverage the city’s code enforcement office to contact owners who need to perform maintenance on their properties.
“Sometimes there are absentee landlords and you gotta find them,” said Jackson. “Nine out of ten times they’re compliant but there’s always the ones that ignore you and don’t pay your taxes.”
Jackson said he’ll also be looking at ways to reduce the property tax burden and bring more business to the city.
The job is part time, and Jackson hasn’t yet decided what his office hours will be, but he’s confident in the municipal employees that run the city from day to day.
“I think I’m going to be just signing this and signing that, letting those people run the city ... those people are great,” he said.
He added that he also has a good relationship with his current colleagues on the city council. “I have all the confidence in the world in everyone on the council,” he said. “We’re all Republicans so that helps, too.”
Reach Gazette reporter Daniel Fitzsimmons at 852-9605, [email protected] or @DanFitzsimmons on Twitter.