Rusty Johnson’s goals for the city of Ocoee include lowering taxes, expanding the downtown and boosting economic growth and development.
Working 12-hour work days while leading a whole city might seem intimidating to many and managing an inbox that receives an average of 200 to 300 emails from constituents is no easy task — but Ocoee Mayor Rusty Johnson enthusiastically embraces the challenge.
He wouldn’t want it any other way for the city he’s resided in for 61 years.
The retired post office worker volunteered to serve on several city boards before eventually being elected mayor in 2015.
Although Johnson never took a single political course during his business degree from what it is now known as the University of Central Florida, it failed to deter Johnson’s determination to lend a hand in improving the city of Ocoee.
“Even when I was in college, I didn’t really take anything pertaining to political stuff,” Johnson shared. “I kind of got into doing this because I just wanted to be involved with the city and see what I could do. So it just kind of led into that for the last 30 years, and that’s what I’ve done.”
Some volunteer board members believe the city’s management has significantly changed since Johnson took office after the former mayor, S. Scott Vandergrift, stepped down due to health issues. However, Johnson repeatedly emphasized the word “we” when describing the recent successes and ambitious projects undertaken in the city.
“Right now, in the city of Ocoee, we have a very good city commission that seems to work very well, and that’s an asset for Rusty,” said Milton West, an Ocoee resident who’s been on the planning and zoning board for 16 years. “They share some of his vision. … It’s one of the reasons why the city is moving (forward).”
Johnson, himself, recalls a time when it wasn’t that way, when communication between the city’s leadership and city staff was sorely lacking.
The result, Johnson said, was a city that did not make much progress in growth and development – a stark contrast to the extensive downtown Ocoee revitalization project the city has taken significant steps toward making a reality.
“I also wanted to make sure we grew in the right way,” Johnson explained, referring to why he decided to run for mayor. “Make things happen and move them toward the right direction, and that’s what I think we’ve done. There was a period in time there where we just kind of sat stagnant, you know? We didn’t really do anything, but that kind of changed because when you change the type of people that sit on the boards, the whole parameter changes.”
Johnson strongly credits the joint labor of his fellow commissioners and city staff members’ for all the recent growth and development projects that have been approved for design and construction, the most notable being the City Center West Orange and downtown Ocoee.
PROVIDING ANSWERS TO CITIZENS
The city’s resolution to fix the downtown area only came about after a three-day strategic meeting held two years ago, and the City Center West Orange is a work in progress. But Johnson refuses to stop the train just yet, as he possesses other goals in mind he’d also like to fulfill for the city.
“What my plan is, is to try to bring economic growth and development,” he said. “Do our expansion of the city that we’ve got to do and then fix it to where people’s tax base will go down. If we bring in the ad valorem and the new businesses and things that’ll help pay the tax bill, we can lower the citizens’ tax base. And that’s one of the big things I want to try to do.”
In addition to attracting businesses to lower the tax base and advancing growth, Johnson shared that one of his highest priorities has remained – and will continue to be – providing honesty to his constituents. Time-consuming as it is to respond to every citizen request, he deems it worth the effort because “people need to hear the truth,” and politicians should promote citizen engagement and information.
“What I like to do is give an answer to the citizens,” Johnson said. “I want to be able to have you ask me questions and get an answer. It seems to me that in a lot of government things people don’t really get an answer. They just kind of get brushed off and told, ‘Don’t worry, we’re taking care of it. We know what we’re doing, and we don’t need to talk to you.’”
‘A LEADER WITH VISION’
West is one of Ocoee’s longtime residents who’s observed the city’s leadership swap hands. He’s familiar with how things progress under different styles of leadership, and he particularly appreciates Johnson’s brand of leadership.
“I’m extremely excited about what’s going on right now,” West said. “Rusty likes what he does — he enjoys being mayor. … He’s got a vision of what he wants to see the city become, and he’s got a vision for what the people want for the city.”
Johnson’s vision and passion for the city has also genuinely impressed Mike Hopper, a citizen who most recently served on the Code Enforcement Board. Hopper appreciates Johnson’s promise to bring more shops and restaurants downtown and is convinced Johnson truly has the interests of Ocoee at heart.
“We have made a real significant leap to the future, actually, and I think it’s a real good step,” Hopper said. “I’ve known Rusty all of my life almost. He’s been a council person, he’s always volunteered, and so he’s got the city of Ocoee at his heart. I think that’s the biggest asset that Rusty has. He loves the city of Ocoee.”
Contact Gabby Baquero at [email protected].