Prince George’s Executive Believes He’s Left His Mark

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As Jack Johnson prepares to leave office as Prince George‘s county executive, many are looking back at his administration to see the legacy he leaves behind. When Johnson gave his last State of the Economy address for Prince George’s County April 22, he seemed very retrospective about his tenure as county executive.

“Before I moved to this region, I had never heard of this place called Prince George’s County,” said Johnson in his address. “The people of this county have given me all that they have to offer by bestowing upon me their two highest offices — state’s attorney for eight years, and now, as county executive. For that, I am truly humbled.”

Over the past eight years, the county has seen remarkable economic growth with the opening of National Harbor, the Boulevard at Capital Centre, University Town Center, the Mall at Prince George’s and M-Square Research Park among other projects. The South Carolina native also has overseen the groundbreaking of Konterra and Woodmore Town Center.

Johnson touts these accomplishments, especially the development at National Harbor.

“Last week, I was interviewed by the ABC affiliate from San Diego. The story was that Gaylord came to Prince George’s County as opposed to San Diego,” he said. “I was proud to talk about how aggressively we pursued Gaylord, knowing that they would create jobs, increase tax revenues, and attract millions of visitors to our county.”

Rhonda Slade, president and CEO of the Prince George’s Chamber of Commerce, said despite some of the zoning issues that have occurred over the years, Johnson has been a vital resource in Prince George’s economic development.

“Overall, we strongly feel that he’s done a lot to present Prince George’s County as a business-friendly county,” Slade said. “The onus will definitely be on the next county executive to further that message and strongly emphasize that Prince George’s is business friendly.”

Under his tenure, Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) have also seen record numbers in fiscal support from Johnson’s budget. His support for the schools has not been lost on PGCPS officials.

“The county executive has been a tremendous supporter of Prince George’s County Public Schools for the past eight years,” said William Hite Jr., superintendent of PGCPS. “My fear would be that his educational legacy would be judged on the last year and a half when his ability to fund education was negatively impacted by state and county revenue.”

Under Johnson’s leadership, the county opened 13 new schools and has seen significant gains in test scores among many of its students. Fourth-graders have seen a 17 percent jump in math proficiency to 81 percent over the past four years while seventh-graders have seen an 18 percent jump in reading proficiency to 70 percent over the same time period.

He’s also seen record lows in the crime rate over the last year, when Prince George’s County saw its lowest crime rate in 35 years. Many officials say that despite the budget issues, Johnson’s commitment to public safety was part of the reason why the drop was so drastic.

“I think the county executive added more police,” said Prince George’s States Attorney Glenn Ivey. “He did it over a several-year stretch. He got more manpower on the street and that was good.”

However, not everything has been golden under his tenure. Political analyst P. Kenneth Burns explained some of the unpopular moves Johnson has made since the 2006 elections.

“I’m not sure how much weight he has now,” said Burns, creator of Maryland Politics Today, a Web site geared towards statewide politics. “He became really unpopular when he tried to close down nightclubs in Prince George’s County. He became even more unpopular when he tried to jam a telephone tax hike through the last general election, and that failed miserably.”

A larger blemish on his record was the contracts he awarded to his friends, many of whom had no experience in what they were contracted to do, which totaled nearly $3.3 million.

Johnson never disputed the fact that he gave contracts to friends, as he said he valued their passion for making Prince George’s County better.

"If you look at every administration—[D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty], [Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett], [former Prince George’s County Executive Wayne Curry]—they came in and hired the people that they believed would help them achieve success. Every appointment that I made was cronyism because I knew people,” Johnson told the AFRO in 2007. “But everyone that I hired was absolutely qualified and I met them over the years, observed them and believed that they were best to help me achieve the goals I want to achieve.”

Recently, Johnson stirred up a bee hive over his attempt to promote David J. Byrd as chairman of the Prince George’s Planning Board. The appointment was met with stiff opposition from community leaders and the Prince George’s County Council due to the fact that any appointee named now would have to be accepted into the same position by the next county executive.

The county council voted 7-0 to reject Johnson’s nomination. It became another of the reasons many have disapproved of his performance.

Despite those pitfalls, Johnson leaves office saying he’s made a real difference in the county.

“Each step along the way was a step to improve the quality of life for every citizen,” he told the {Washington Post} in a August 2006 interview. “As I prepare to pass on the baton, I do so knowing that we have given the next generation every opportunity to succeed.

“Together, we have written a great story for our county, and I am proud that you have given me the privilege to be the editor. Never before has the future looked so promising.”