In his city hall office, San Luis Obispo city manager Derek Johnson, after a short but enthusiastic greeting,excused himself and darted out to grab some papers from the copier. Looking around in his brief absence, one notices the organized, neat but comfortable digs he’s created in the space where he spends most of his waking life. Photos of family and other mementos accent the bright room that features a large desk with double computer screens; the occasional alert that a situation is going down somewhere in his fiefdom interrupts.
“Yes, it’s a 24/7/365 job,” he admits upon returning, “but I can’t wait to get up every day and come to work. This was the life I imagined: to serve others and make the world a better place.” He added, “My family is my number one priority but after them, this is my life right now.”
And that life presents a full platter: The City of San Luis Obispo is growing quickly—though some of that expansion was already “on the books” just as the recession of the late 2000s hit and, thus being finan- cially deferred, is now moving full steam ahead. “There’s a lot going on,” Derek said of the unprecedented level of construction in the City. “It may look like it, but we don’t have a ‘For Sale’ sign in our window; all the projects underway are consistent with the City’s General Plan.” Indeed, the Chinatown project was approved in the early 2000s with the Garden Street hotel project getting a green light shortly thereafter. “What you’re seeing is the pent-up demand for these projects that were waiting for capital and a market,” he explained.
Another issue named in the City’s major goals and of immediate con- cern, said Derek, is “Climate Action” that directs the City to achieve
a net-zero carbon target and analyze how climate change is affecting the City’s ability to provide for its future water needs given an alarming trend of historic hotter temperatures and less rainfall jeopardizing available resources. Housing continues to be a hot button topic though Derek believes discussions with Cal Poly about adding on-campus housing are productive and will provide relief in that sector—“We have a good partner in Jeff Armstrong,” he said—along with private development for workforce homes underway and proposed.
Those are but a few of the challenges Derek says he, working closely with the community, believes he can find solutions for. “I’m passionate about doing a lot to stabilize our neighborhoods so that we have working professionals and families,” he says affirmatively. He also acknowledges that with the current makeup of younger people serving on the City Council and City advisory bodies come new ideas and new conversations that may be different from what people who’ve lived here a while are used to. He notes that ultimately, success will prevail when people with diverse interests start talking and develop mutual solutions and ideas. All issues come with their ups and downs, but Derek welcomes the hard work of facilitating community conversation and forming government policy. “I want to leave the City a better place than I found it,” he stated firmly.
“I cut my teeth in local government,” Derek shared, describing the jour- ney that led to his hiring as SLO City Manager in 2017. After earning his B.A. in Environmental Science from UCSB in 1992, he served as General Manager for Isla Vista Recreation and Parks District, adjacent to the university. “It was an environment with lots of students but had serious blight due to lack of investment. We also had town/gown issues but I feel we made some positive changes with infrastructure improvements and housing,” he recalled. From there, Derek transitioned to Director for the County of Santa Barbara where he really put his ideas and vision in play. “I was able to do long range planning for rural areas like Santa Ynez Val- ley and the Channel Islands; I worked with Chumash tribes on growth and development plans of their areas. I studied water, strategic planning and closely watched trends and services of communities,” he said.
Derek expanded his expertise in public service in his next position as Community Development Director for the City of Capitola where he worked on redevelopment planning and affordable housing for seniors. During this time, Derek and his wife Sarah felt the pull to relocate closer to the area they’d moved away from. “We’ve always loved the Central Coast and our best friends live in Los Osos,” he said. In 2011, the position of Community Development Director opened; Derek applied and was hired. While he and his family were thrilled to move here, Derek got his “trial by fire” at work. He said, “When I started, the General Plan was being updated. The committee assigned to the task was divided on many of the issues (this was during the recession when the economy was far from recovering).” While he didn’t elaborate, it’s easy to imagine how many late nights and doubts about the move may have resulted. But, true to form, Derek hung in there and helped pull it all together.
From there he later served as Finance Director and Assistant City Manager prior to being hired for the lead position. “This is the job for me,” he says emphatically with his characteristic huge smile. “We’re a stable community, we’re a Mission town, and we’ve got a lot of structure and projects that serve our community well. Ninety percent of people say this is a great place to live. Hey, I know there are some things to work on,” he said. “But my job is to be about implementing a community vision, to get them to articulate that and to then be objec- tive, neutral and provide support to achieve that vision.”
Derek came by his personal philosophy of doing well for others early on. Born in Marin County to Rex and Kay Johnson, he says he grew up in an area—along with siblings Brandon and Nikki—where people have values and interests very similar to those of San Luis Obispo. “Open space preservation, resource protection; my early lessons about those issues inspired me later on to use planning as a way to improve the quality of life. We’re social beings, we want to see and be seen. We value the outdoors, a healthy environment.”
Derek and Sarah, who also graduated from UCSB and works at Bishop’s Peak Elementary as School Secretary, have two daughters Makena, 13, and Hadley, 10. Hadley attends Bishop’s Peak and Makena recently transitioned to Laguna Middle School. The family includes two dogs— both senior Golden Retrievers, Daisy and Mac—that, says Derek, “My daughters coaxed my wife and I to adopt after we lost our 15-year-old last year.”
A surfer since age eight who has chased the waves all around the world for the past 40 years, Derek is also an avid cyclist and a member of Rock Solid Racing, a master cycling club. He now enjoys yoga as well. “At my age, it’s safer,” he laughs. Traveling to Spain with his family is his favorite vacation; he particularly loves that some of the towns like Granada and Seville have individually-branded ‘districts’ with unique themes. “I’d love to see that in Downtown SLO,” he said.
Looking ahead at a couple other major issues for Derek is the forthcoming closure of Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant and maintain- ing the vitality of Downtown. As to the first, he says, “The closure of Diablo means we’ll lose a lot of jobs (approximately 3,000) countywide—that economic impact would be the equivalent of losing our wine industry,” he points out. “What are we doing to keep jobs here and the quality of life that we have come to enjoy,” he asked, “when we hear of businesses that want to come here but need workforce housing to put their people in?” And, Derek feels strongly committed to keeping Downtown safe, beautiful and economically strong. “We need more people living Downtown—that will help moderate the late-night impacts to its ambiance and help keep it vibrant in the face of more people shopping online,” he said. Derek believes the city’s urban story started with the Mission and it should honor that history and be the best it can be.
“I love my job and am so thankful every day to serve this community. It is hard, it is difficult, and you can’t make everyone happy,” he said, “but I get to serve the people who live here and that’s the most important thing.”