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Johnson brings youth to LO council

by: Vern Uyetake, As the youngest member of the Lake Oswego City Council, Kristin Johnson said she hopes to energize other young adults to get involved in local politics.

Kristin Johnson is always weighing her options.

'I like that fact that I have to know everything that goes into making a decision,' said Johnson. 'I work hard to make the right decisions, and the way to make those is to listen to the people.'

At 23, Johnson is the youngest city council member in Lake Oswego history and one of the youngest politicians in the state.

Johnson's first exposure to Lake Oswego politics was as a member of the Lake Oswego Youth City Council from 2000 to 2002, when she was a student at Lakeridge High School. She went on to study political science at University of Oregon.

Fresh out of college, Johnson has returned to her hometown - foregoing her high school ambition of joining the State Department and shaping U.S. foreign policy.

'For me, this is the best way to give back,' she said. 'I'm learning a lot about politics and people and how much effect city government has. It just makes me love L.O. more.'

Johnson was elected last fall, when she was 22, handily beating the closest candidate by more than 500 votes.

Although she's been eyeing a political career since she was in grade school, it wasn't until her senior year at U of O that she set her sights on the Lake Oswego City Council.

'At 12, I decided I wanted to go into politics and was pretty convinced I was going to be president,' she said. 'I'm really not interested in being president any more.'

But she is adamant about local politics and undaunted by what some might consider her inexperience. When it comes to making informed decisions on the council Johnson said youth is no obstacle.

Some council decisions are routine, such as annexations and cable franchise agreements. But in coming months and years, the council faces tough budget decisions on a host of capital improvement projects that promise to put council members under scrutiny among city hall watchdog groups.

The straight-talking Johnson is confident.

'I trust myself more than anybody else,' she said. 'In my heart, I'm really looking out for what I think is best for Lake Oswego.'

Lake Oswego Mayor Judie Hammerstad said Johnson has the intellect and reasoning to navigate those choppy waters.

'Kristin is the sort of person who can quietly observe and see what's going on,' said Hammerstad. 'I think she is a considerably more effective councilor than many I have seen in the past who have lived here a long, long time and didn't have an interest or feeling for it. I love having young people on the council.'

One of the toughest decisions facing the council is how to proceed with building a potential $70 million community center.

The city has purchased a $20 million property on Kruse Way, dubbed the West End Building. But a local group called Ask Lake Oswegans wants to put that property acquisition to a vote by amending the city charter.

Johnson defends the $20 million purchase.

'I think buying that property was a good decision,' she said. 'You can't have a plan without the land. We haven't answered the question: What are our options for paying for the community center?'

Johnson said it's possible that the city could strike a deal for a public/private partnership, in which some of the land is developed and leased as office space.

Ardent opponents of the deal said the city jumped the gun by purchasing the property, then asking voters for permission to build the center. Johnson's position on the matter may not ease their concerns.

'I'm not very interested in making it difficult for people to live here,' she said, referring to raising taxes. 'But at the same time, there is a need for a community center and I'm not going to ignore that.'

Fellow council member Frank Groznik said Johnson brings a fresh perspective to the council - since she and her generation will have to live with the important decisions the council now faces.

'I value her judgment as much as anybody who has lived in the city 40 or 50 years, because she's going to live in the city longer,' Groznik said. 'The younger people should be encouraged by Kristen's election to reach out and be a part of the community.'

Although Johnson is the first in her family to go into politics, being active in the community is an inherited trait. Her grandmother, Dee Denton, was executive director of the Lake Oswego Chamber of Commerce for 33 years and founded the Lake Oswego Festival of the Arts.

'She instilled in me a passion for community service,' Johnson said. 'It's kind of hard to grow up with that and not understand the importance of being part of the community.'

Denton said Johnson's approach has always been to study issues before deciding.

'She is a person who does a lot of research before she makes decisions - that's her M-O,' Denton said. 'It's refreshing to have a younger person on the council.'

Former Lake Oswego Mayor Bill Klammer, who worked with Johnson when she was on the Youth Council, said she won his vote because 'we needed a new viewpoint on the council.'

'She's a bright young lady and undoubtedly has a helluva good thought process,' said Klammer. 'She might look at things in a different manner than I would and I think that's good.'

The only reservation Hammerstad said she has about Johnson is that she might get over-extended, volunteering for too many local and regional committees.

'It's a pretty big job for any young person just to jump into,' said Hammerstad.

Johnson delegates her time between working as an office assistant for a Milwaukie industrial hygienist and spending 20 hours a week doing council work. (She'll soon begin working at her uncle's plastics recycling firm, Denton Plastics.)

Johnson may parlay her council experience into a run, someday, for state Legislature. For now, she'll stick with learning the ropes at city hall.

Even in her off-time, Johnson said she's considering issues that will affect Lake Oswego's future.

'I love meeting people in the grocery store while shopping for produce and talking about neighborhood planning,' she said. 'It's exciting to be in a community where people pay attention to what's going on.'