Wailuku - At the sunset of 10 years in office, Maui County Council Member Jo Anne Johnson reflected on public service, the loss of her life partner and her love for the people who grew to accept a Wisconsin native with a funny Midwestern accent as one of their own.
"They adopted me," said Johnson, who will leave the council's West Maui seat at the end of the year because of term limits.
"I will never run for elected office ever again. I always did this as a public service," she said, adding that it was never a career she planned on pursuing long term.
Maui County Council Member Jo Anne Johnson (center) listens as colleagues offer memories and wish her well Friday. Also pictured are Council Members Gladys Baisa and Sol Kaho‘ohalahala.
The Maui News / AMANDA COWAN photo
In a resolution approved by the council Friday, Johnson was recognized for:
* Tirelessly working to acquire and protect historic sites such as Mokuhinia (adjacent to Moku'ula) along with beach parks such as Papalaua, and for expanding camping areas throughout the county.
* Serving as chairwoman of the Parks and Economic Development, and the Economic Development, Agriculture and Recreation committees. She said she considers the conservation of county parks and recreation facilities to be of utmost importance.
* Taking charge of a campaign to prohibit the exhibition of captive cetaceans in the County of Maui, a task that generated more interest than any previous legislative effort on the island, and made the county one of the first in the country to ban displays of dolphins and whales.
Johnson told The Maui News she was also proud of forking out $25,000 from her office budget to pay for a transportation infrastructure workshop that brought experts from the Mainland to share expertise and raise awareness of the complexities of traffic and roadway plans.
Former Council Member Robert Carroll, who returns to office in January, also supported the workshop with money from his office budget, Johnson said.
"I was really glad we did that. It was really beneficial to the community," she said.
Johnson left the island Friday to visit to her hometown of Chilton, Wis., where she'll spend the holidays with her parents, Gordon and Lucille Lakin. Johnson has not been home for Christmas in 20 years.
"I'm going to have a snowy Christmas," she said with a smile.
She will return next year to Maui, a place where she said people have embraced her and allowed her to serve as a "Hawaiian at heart."
She has expressed interest in joining the administration of Mayor-elect Alan Arakawa and has asked him to assign her where he judges she would be of the "highest and best use." Her own interests include but are not limited to working within the Department of Housing and Human Concerns; serving as a trouble-shooter on West Maui issues; improving communications with the County Council and Department of Public Works, or perhaps simply working in the Mayor's Office.
Johnson settled permanently on Maui in 1994, after she and her late husband sold their insurance business in the Virgin Islands.
Johnson said she served as a council member with the wholehearted support of her spouse and best friend of 20 years, the late James "Jim" Johnson. He died Jan. 10 from complications caused by Parkinson's disease, with his wife by his side.
Jim Johnson was often seen sitting in the Council Chambers galley, offering support and counsel to his wife.
"He sacrificed a lot for me to do this job. I think a lot of people don't know just how much a spouse sacrifices," she said.
Jim Johnson came to the Council Chambers regularly for six of the 10 years his wife was on the council, but cut back his time in the last four years as his illness progressed. Jo Anne Johnson said that, like her husband, she wants to be buried on Maui.
"I will be laid to rest here," she said.
Johnson's involvement in public service began with a variety of community groups alongside Jim, including Waiola Church, the West Maui Youth Center and the West Maui Citizens Patrol. In 2000, she unseated four-term West Maui incumbent Dennis Y. Nakamura, winning by just 125 votes.
She seemed to breeze through the next four elections.
She said she considers West Maui to be in capable hands with the newly elected Elle Cochran, who will be sworn in to Johnson's old office in January.
Johnson's advice: "Do not have a private agenda. Listen to your constituents. Set goals and concentrate on achieving them."
She said the hardest part of the job was setting aside her own views on an issue so that she could listen to all points before reaching a decision and casting a vote on the council floor.
"You have to restrain yourself. You have to have an open mind," Johnson said.
She said that for a long time, she had opinions about certain projects including proposed developments, but she said she tried her best to set them aside so she could fairly and objectively weigh out the pros and cons.
"It has been a challenge," she said, particularly in the last two years with the downturn in the economy and having to make tough budgetary decisions.
She said she puts her faith and trust in the new council that will take office in January. "There's no shortage of caring," she said, expressing her confidence that council members will do their best to serve the community.
"We're all in it together as a team," she said. "The public - we do this all for them."
* Claudine San Nicolas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.