A former City of Fresno administrative hearing officer is running for Mariposa County Superior Court Judge.
Ed Johnson for three years was essentially judge and jury for code enforcement appeals at Fresno City Hall. He left city employment after his three-year contract expired in 2016.
Now he wants to sit on the bench in his home county.
“With your help, I will work for change that offers New Paths to Justice that are more responsive to the needs of Mariposa County citizens, with tangible cost-saving results,” Johnson says on his campaign website. “I will work for you for change to improve court programs and procedures through a three-part approach. First, increase your access to the court. Second, offer new services to more efficiently resolve disputes. And third, apply principles that put victims and community first.”
Johnson on his website says he has been a resident of Ponderosa Basin for 24 years. He is a graduate of San Joaquin College of Law in Clovis. He has an undergraduate degree in engineering from Rutgers University and a master’s degree in city planning from USC. The website lists his extensive experience in the court system. He is an expert when it comes to conducting mediation programs to resolve conflicts.
“Mediation is more cost effective, faster, and with a higher participant satisfaction than traditional litigation,” Johnson says on his website. “This is especially well-suited for disputes that disrupt the entire community like contentious land use and environmental issues. Less court time on civil matters leaves more court time for family and criminal matters, and less costs for contract visiting judges.”
Johnson at Fresno City Hall was a brave man.
Johnson served during the final years of Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s second term. It was a time when city officials, community activists and the mainstream media had declared a community-wide war on “slumlords.” Property owners who didn’t take care of their residential and commercial buildings were alleged to be the cause of Fresno’s economic and social woes. Critics wanted tougher regulations and more consistent use of the city’s power to force compliance.
In a nutshell, George Patton-style code enforcement.
And, without a doubt, the activists had a valid point. Every Fresnan has a right to a clean, safe place to live. Blight is a cancer on any neighborhood. Some Fresno property owners simply refuse to obey the law – they deserve swift, sure and serious punishment.
But, as happens all too often with government-led crusades, a degree of hysteria crept into the execution. It wasn’t long before some uncooperative property owners were being hit with total fines in the mid- and high-five figure range. The violations included things like plywood coverings on windows in vacant houses and peeling paint on exteriors.
These people weren’t owners of huge apartment complexes that had been allowed to turn into deathtraps. For the most part, these people were mom-and-pop landlords who had small, run-down properties.
The issue wasn’t so much whether these landlords were in the wrong. Based on my experience at hearings, code enforcement officers always had plenty of proof that the properties were code problems and that the landlords had been given plenty of warning. The issue was how the fines were computed.
This is where Ed Johnson came into play.
Johnson heard a variety of appeals in his three years at City Hall. He didn’t automatically favor either side. Statistics showed that City Hall prevailed in more than 90% of the appeals heard by Johnson. Sometimes, Johnson came down (partially or completely) on the appellant’s side.
This wasn’t good enough for city officials. They came to loathe Johnson for his evenhanded ways. They made it plain that Johnson wouldn’t be resigned when his contract ended in October 2016.
The U.S. Constitution was the final straw in the eyes of city officials. Johnson began to question whether the huge fines in some residential code enforcement cases violated the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibiting “excessive fines.”
To make a long story short, Johnson kept up with his questioning despite the criticism from powerful officials, his contract died, and City Hall later tweaked its fine structure.
The way I see it, Ed Johnson as independent administrative hearing officer for the City of Fresno walked that fine line between a government that must govern on behalf of the community and the individual citizen who has Constitutional protections against governmental abuse of power.
Johnson did what judges are supposed to do.