The Land That Politics Forgot 

Welcome to Yowza Dave Smith's Newark, where no one votes, no one runs for office, and no one dissents. Has democracy failed? Or has it been perfected?

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Smith singled out Olesky not for his relative lack of longevity, but for his expertise in what the mayor called "pavement-maintenance science." Newark, Smith explained to the cable-access TV audience, takes great pride in keeping its streets perfectly smooth. "All you have to do is cross our border, and it's a whole different ballgame," he said, as council members giggled in the background, knowing that he was alluding to the pothole-plagued streets of Fremont. Smith said the key to Olesky's success was that he fully understood that in Newark, "it's not just customer service, it's about delight.

"We want to delight our customers," Smith explained, adding a "Yowza!" and a "by golly."

After he was done, the council jumped into what would be the meat of a council meeting in any other city: the agenda. If you blinked, you would have missed it. Not a single person from the community came to speak in open forum. Nor did anyone discuss any issue on the agenda. Smith and the four other council members didn't, either. About the only thing they did was fumble over each other to make motions so they could pass the agenda items unanimously.

That unity is representative of how Newark has operated ever since Smith moved into the mayor's office. There was even a stretch from the late 1990s into the early part of this decade without a single dissenting council vote, according to news accounts at the time.

Journalists and others have long suspected that Smith and his colleagues must be violating the state open meetings law, which prohibits closed-door sessions that would enable a council to work out its differences in secret. "I thought the fix was in," said Alberto Torrico, who joined the council in 2001 after running as an outsider who promised to shake things up. Torrico's win surprised Smith and the other council members. And he did shake things up a bit, dissenting a few times from Smith and the council majority. According to the Fremont Argus, Smith said at the time he was "shocked and appalled" when Torrico voted no, while Torrico retorted that Smith's title "isn't king of Newark, it's mayor."

"I figured the mayor met with other council members and staff beforehand and they made their decision and then rolled it out in public to quote, 'vote' on it," Torrico said in a recent interview. "But to my surprise, that never happened."

Over time, the Democrat recalled, he came to appreciate the Republican mayor and his Newark Way, adding that he probably dissented fewer than ten times in his three years on the council. Torrico now considers Smith a friend, and last year Smith endorsed his successful campaign for state Assembly.

So how do Smith and the council reach such unanimity without breaking the law? Smith, Nagy, and longtime City Manager Huezo said it has to do with "trust." Huezo, who has worked for the city for 31 years, including the last nine as city manager, said that because he knows the council members so well, he can anticipate their questions and concerns. That way, he is able to eliminate controversy ahead of time. "We work it out in advance, so when we get something to the council, it's about celebrating it," said Huezo, who unlike most city managers works without a contract, meaning Smith and the council could fire him at any time and he would receive no golden parachute.

Smith added that he has worked so long with Huezo and other top city staffers, that he trusts them to decide what's right for Newark. The same is true with his political appointees. He said he has never attended or even watched a planning commission meeting, and knows the staff won't foist a last-minute surprise on him. "I have one rule," he said. "Don't make the mayor look stupid -- I'm capable of doing that myself."

When hiring and promoting employees, Huezo said, the city values loyalty and teamwork above all else. If employees become overly ambitious or seek out controversy, they won't be working for Newark very long, he said. Smith, meanwhile, makes sure that when a new member joins the council, he sits them down and explains the Newark Way. "No one comes to a city council meeting to polish their own star," the mayor said. "People really have to check their egos at the door."

But Smith doesn't hold such chats very often. Along with Nagy's 25-year stint on the council, Sue Johnson has been on the panel for twenty years and Luis Freitas, ten years. The fifth member is former City Manager Paul Tong. Smith and the council appointed Tong to temporarily replace Torrico when he went to the Assembly last year. Tong had worked for the city for 37 years.

As you drive on Interstate 880, all that unity and longevity is easy to miss. On pulling off the freeway at the Thornton Avenue exit, the homogeneity is remarkable. It seems as if each Newark neighborhood is essentially a group of suburban tract homes fronted by a strip mall. The city has one exclusive neighborhood known as the Lake area, a group of larger 1970s-era homes surrounding a small artificial lake. Smith's house is on an island in the middle of that lake.

In the late 1970s, Newark forged its economic destiny, and Smith and the city have capitalized on it ever since. Until Proposition 13, Newark subsisted almost entirely on property taxes; Smith said it had the highest rates in the county. But when Prop. 13 rolled back property tax revenues for cities and counties, Newark and other cities were forced to scramble to attract the new tax-revenue generators -- white-collar businesses and retailers. Newark pulled off two major coups, both at the expense of neighboring Fremont.

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