Jonathan Popp has a philosophy that he likes to share: “Good people make good decisions when they’ve got good information.”
And Popp, 59, who has started his 11th year as the mayor of Gilbert, often refers back to this thought as he talks about the things that have happened in recent years in his community.
He’s a big believer in education, and says in fact, that it’s the second part of his philosophy — “good information” — that is often the hardest part and is why the whole educational process is so important.
Take for example, when Gilbert proposed to put in the first intersection roundabout in Story County several years back. It may seem like a little thing — putting in one roundabout — but the discussion and resulting decision to do it was “monumental,” Popp said.
“There was a strong group of people who said that (a roundabout) would never work.” But it has worked. At the corner just south of the new high school and just north of the former high school (which still houses school kids), the traffic is heavy at two times of the day — before school and after school — as well as when big events, like football games, are letting out.
“We’d have buses that have to go through that intersection multiple times (a day),” he explained, “so a roundabout was the perfect choice for that corner.” In fact, that roundabout, the choice made by city leaders, has been, he said, “fantastic. You don’t have to stop…Look left, turn right … that’s all you have to know.”
Part of getting more buy-in from the public was educating the public, and Popp said he enjoyed being part of that. “We had a paper model that was 25-feet square, and we had kids and teachers walk on it,” teaching them how it works. Popp said they did demonstrations at all levels of the schools and at other community civic group meetings. Another thing that made sense about the roundabout, he said, was the expense. It was constructed for less cost then putting in turn lanes and for less than adding a stoplight.
Popp said one of the best things for him about being the mayor of Gilbert is getting to go out and talk about things that are happening in the city. He especially loves educating younger kids, who soak it all up.
The mayor came to Gilbert in 1982, after spending his youth in northern Illinois. He’s a 1977 graduate of Waterman High School, and a 1981 graduate of the University of Illinois at Champaign. It was there that he earned a degree in agricultural engineering.
Popp spent a year-and-a-half working for DeKalb Ag, before it was bought out by Monsanto, and then he came to Gilbert and worked 14 years for Mike Brayton Seeds of Ames (which is now MBS of Story City). In 1995, he started his own engineering firm, Popp Engineering Inc., with a business partner, Cherlye Harmon, who is now retired. The business started out of his basement in Gilbert, but is located today on the east side of Ames. The business’ specialty is the seed industry and working on all the systems that go with that.
When it comes to his service to the city of Gilbert, Popp said some years back, an existing council member was moving and had asked if he’d be interested in finishing the two years left on her term. He ended up being appointed to that seat. He later ran for the council and was elected to a four-year term. When the current mayor wasn’t going to run again, Popp decided he would run for mayor to keep continuity in the city’s leadership. “There were still things that needed getting done,” he said. “It was back before we built the high school, but all those discussions were in play.”
The new high school was a major undertaking for the city and the school, especially in a tight-knit community that has a lot of pride in its school district, Popp said. The new school project required city annexation and a lot of work with infrastructure. “And when you’re annexing for a school, it’s different than when you are doing it for a developer,” Popp said. Because, he noted, there’s no developer helping pay…”you’re dealing with all taxpayer money, and it’s for the whole betterment of the community.”
Again, Popp went back to his philosophy about good decisions and good information. He felt his background in engineering was helpful in his own ability to learn about the things that were happening and in educating others about why certain infrastructure things did or didn’t make sense.
That part of his philosophy about good people — Popp said Gilbert has that in good measure on its City Council. “We have a good council with good people that have put in multiple years for the city,” he said. Those council people include two members who were recently re-elected, Teri Gallahan and Katie Jerkins, along with Frank Rydl, Jamie Miller and Shaon Anderson, who is the mayor pro-tem.
The city is also blessed with three good full-time staff members: City Clerk Sonia Arellano Dodd, Streets and Parks employee Gary Steel, and Water and Wastewater employee Tad Stupp.
Along with all these good people, Popp said he believes there are a number of good things happening in Gilbert. “We’ve got growth, primarily residential; a strong school system and in our community we frequently refer to ‘The Gilbert Way’ … you have to be one (a resident of Gilbert or its schools) to understand it,” he said. As for projects going on, Popp said the community is doing upgrades on its sanitary sewer system and its 42-year-old fresh water plant.
In April of 2015, when the huge grain elevator fire happened in Gilbert, involving 13 fire departments, it ended up, in the end, showing that the city of Gilbert was prepared for such a disaster. “We saw through that (experience) the coordination and how well all the different emergency systems in place worked together,” he said. He’s proud of the Gilbert Fire Agency, which is a service of Gilbert and Franklin Township, primarily. He’s glad the city was able to build a new facility in recent years that houses the fire department, City Hall and a community building, where there are shared restrooms and a kitchen.
In the community, Popp is involved in various activities, including membership in the Gilbert Lutheran Church. He has a passion for antique tractors and for vegetable gardening. He’s been married “happily” to his wife Sharon for 34 years. Sharon is a reading teacher in the Gilbert Elementary School. They have two children, a daughter and a son, both graduates of Gilbert High School and now living in Des Moines and Denver, respectively.
Popp loves living in Gilbert, which he said “is about as close to being on a farm as you can get and still be in town.” He loves the small-town atmosphere, and how most everybody knows everybody.
And when it comes to being mayor, he loves that educational component. He sees himself as a resource for the community. “I don’t expect to know all the answers, but I have a pretty good idea how to find them.”