Intern learns what makes a city run

Will Johnson, City of Darlington summer intern. Photo by Samantha Lyles

By Samantha Lyles, Staff Writer,

Before heading off to study political science at Clemson University in the fall, 18-year-old Will Johnson decided to get some first-hand, real-world experience. Since he aims to run for political office someday, Johnson felt that learning what it takes to keep the gears turning in day to day city operations would help him become a more effective and informed public servant.

“That’s why I’m up here, to try and figure out what I want to do. My end goal is to run for public office, whether it’s local, state or federal,” says Johnson.

Johnson graduated from Darlington High School in June, and his time playing varsity tennis, serving on student government and working with a variety of civic service clubs prepared him for the workload and variety of tasks involved in a summer internship. While floating from assignment to assignment, Johnson has learned about the duties, staff, and operations of the police and fire departments, codes enforcement, recreation, streets and sanitation, water and sewer, municipal court, and city administration.

He says that one commonality among all these departments is a commitment to helping citizens who ask for help, even when those citizens are less than cordial. When callers phone the street department, irate because their trash wasn’t picked up, or water customers request extra time on cut-off day, or defendants behave ignobly at court, Johnson says patience and compassion are key.

“I’ve learned a lot about customer service,” says Johnson. “My grandmother owns Clifton’s Car Stereo in Hartsville and I’ve worked up there, so I had some background on how to talk to people – what to say and what not to say.”

He adds that this attitude was reinforced during his intern hours with the Darlington Police Department and city administration.

“Howard (Garland, city manager) told me that in order to govern a city, you have to understand what people go through on a daily basis. That’s everybody from department heads to workers on the street to people trying to pay their bills,” says Johnson. “Capt. Kim Nelson (DPD) told me, when I worked with her, never to look down on anyone and always treat them with respect.”

Aside from the valuable soft skills needed to navigate prickly people, Johnson also got a sense of how much hard physical work city employees do every day. From picking up garbage, yard waste, and storm debris to cutting grass and clearing clogged storm drains, city workers sweat every day for their pay. During his internship, Johnson has expended some physical effort, too — sweeping streets, painting curbs, washing fire trucks — which gave him a new appreciation for those who work so hard to make the city look better.

He also observes that most people outside city government might assume that departments work very independently of each other, but he’s found that to be untrue. Johnson noticed that city employees often call each other to help solve problems, or for advice and support.

“If you’re working in the water department, you wouldn’t think that you would need the police or fire department, but they call each other every day. It’s like a huge family at the city. Every worker knows every other worker by name… everybody knows everyone’s extension number by heart,” Johnson says.

Before his summer with the city ends, Johnson hopes to meet with members of Darlington County’s legislative delegation to learn about their experiences with public service. But, he notes, he already got some sage advice from Frank Willis, Darlington County Economic Development executive director and former City of Florence mayor.

“He told me to persevere, to keep things simple, and try to always be honest with people,” Johnson says. “Do those things, and you’ll go pretty far.”

Author: Rachel Howell

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