As many years as Brian Johnson had been a fixture of Kennedale public service, including time on the Planning and Zoning Commission and then City Council, the office of mayor seemed more like something he would inherit rather than fight for.
And it was. Or at least he drew no opponent in the May election, which was canceled because the two council incumbents also were unopposed.
Keeping on track is a key mission of Kennedale, a little city that is undergoing structural change, from high-profile legal battles to rid its main entrance at Interstate 20 of sexually oriented businesses, to workaday efforts to create more green space and add sidewalks to major road projects.
Johnson knows the city.
“We’ve had a fairly consistent council for seven years now, I guess, on where we’re going as a city,” he said. “I think we want to have the continuation.”
Johnson didn’t get to put down roots much when he was younger. He was born into an Air Force family in Germany and move to the states when he was 3. He lived in cities from Florida to Oregon, from Michigan to Arizona. He arrived in Kennedale in 1996, met a few people, and when a seat opened on the Planning and Zoning Commission in 1998, he was tapped to fill it.
He served seven years, the last four as chairman, before he was appointed to fill a council vacancy in 2005. He served there until he stepped in as mayor.
But he doesn’t live on volunteerism alone. He is an assistant professor and chairman of the social sciences department at Tarrant County College South Campus. And he has taught part-time for the Dallas County Community College since 1991.
Johnson earned a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1985 and master’s degree in international relations in 1988, both from the University of Central Oklahoma.
“Brian is a very smart guy,” said Joe Taylor, president of the Kennedale school board. “But sometimes what is more important than smarts is passion for the work that you’re doing. He brings both. He brings a lot of experience and smarts.”
Taylor said he and Johnson and a couple of council members or other community leaders have breakfast together periodically to talk about projects the city and school district could do jointly. He points out that Johnson doesn’t take coffee, like everyone else.
“Tea for him — he’s a Democrat,” Taylor said. “In spite of that, I like him.”
Not so fast, Johnson countered. “He thinks I’m a Democrat. But I’m just very pragmatic,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to lock myself into an ideology. That blocks me from being open to other solutions. You might call that wishy-washy.”
Johnson also is a vegetarian, seemingly surrounded by carnivores. So he’s used to good-natured ribbing. Sometimes at council meetings when meals are provided, he said, “They’ll put a plate of grass in front of me. That’s usually my city manager.”
Nevertheless, at Kennedale High School home football games, Johnson can be found at the stadium helping Councilman Frank Fernandez grill a truckload of red-meat burgers.
Johnson, who doesn’t even eat fish, said he didn’t become a vegetarian for his health or to make an environmental statement. “I think I did it to test my discipline,” Johnson said. “That was 12 years ago.”
Similarly, his acceptance of that zoning commission appointment in 1998 led to an unexpectedly long commitment — 16 years, and counting.
But not all of his volunteering is at City Hall. He has been part of many governmental agencies and organizations, including the Texas Municipal League legislative committee and a National League of Cities committee on community and economic development.
Johnson’s current service includes stints on the League of Cities’ Youth, Education and Families Council, the Tarrant Regional Transportation Coalition executive board and the Southeast Tarrant Transportation Partnership.
“He’s a good thinker. He has good judgment,” said Vic Suhm, the transportation coalition’s executive director. “It didn’t surprise me that he’d be interested in being mayor. He has leadership qualities. He’s a strong individual.”
In 1998, Johnson took a one-year, paid sabbatical from teaching at his TCC campus so he could explore Kennedale’s transportation, development and growth issues.
The project helped him earn the Kennedale Chamber of Commerce’s Community Representative of the Year in 2009.
He was part of the Imagine Kennedale 2015 planning committee that teamed with UT Arlington urban studies students to help push along development planning for a Town Center and for redeveloping the property that would soon be free of adult businesses.
Today, he notes, the city has added its second and third parks, including TownCenter Park behind City Hall. In addition to a playground and walking path, it is home to city’s poignant 9-11 memorial, featuring a 12-foot section of a rusty beam from one of the collapsed World Trade Center towers.
“What we’d like to be able to do in the long term is take Village Creek, which feeds into Arlington, and convert that into a linear park,” Johnson said. “It’s probably a 10- to 12-year project.”
Like other big projects in Kennedale, as in most cities, he said, the city councils that start the process usually aren’t around for the ribbon-cutting, at least no longer in the members’ official capacities.
But starting and shepherding major improvements to the city is part of the attraction for Johnson. Political biases don’t usually trickle down to local governing, so things get done, he said, at least in Kennedale.
“There are people on the council that disagree on national issues, but in local issues, we’re in agreement,” he said. “There’s a pragmatism to local government. You know what you’re supposed to do; your job is to provide those city services.”
And if a council has an opportunity to improve the quality of life for its residents – like a park improvement — “then that’s what you do. I would say that’s why I do this. And I enjoy the camaraderie and the give and take,” he added. “And it’s a learning experience, always.”