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March 13, 2007 > Vice Mayor resigns

Vice Mayor resigns

By Steve Warga

The law of averages finally caught up with Newark's City Council at their March 8 meeting at City Hall. Most of the time, this governing body conducts its business with little fuss or fanfare. Action items are generally addressed with near unanimity; city business affairs slide smoothly from proposal to staff reports to council considerations to conclusion. That all changed in one meeting that will linger in memories for many years to come.

The surprise announcement from 22-year council veteran, Susan Johnson, turned out to be the big news of the night, but it was a discussion of burglar alarm response policies that attracted most of the media's attention that night, including a rare appearance by a local TV station. The film crew recorded the alarm response segment then left, along with other local media. It was their loss, as Johnson's news didn't break until nearly the end of the lengthy meeting; a rare occurrence in and of itself in Newark.

Police Lieutenant Donna Shearn presented the staff recommendation to council that the city's false alarm penalties be increased substantially in order to encourage residents and their alarm companies to investigate alarms more carefully before calling the police. There should have been very little controversy here. Some 97 percent of alarm responses in Newark are logged as false, quite often due to owner mistakes, as several civic leaders confessed during discussion of the proposed change.

However, the travails of a certain adjacent city lent considerable sensitivity to the alarm proposal. Though only spoken once directly, the word "Fremont" hung heavy in the minds of council, staff, citizens and media representatives. That city's attempts to codify a "no response" policy two years ago, led to a lawsuit that yet reverberates in municipalities throughout California.

The word "Fremont" might have remained unspoken the entire evening were it not for a certain stubborn refusal of several attendees to accept the mayor's repeated assurances that Newark was not instituting a "no response" policy. Mayor Smith sounded like a broken record, playing the same line over and over, "We will continue to respond to burglar alarms; we will continue to respond to burglar alarms ..." Finally though, it had to be said and the mayor said it, "We are not Fremont!"

A few minutes later, council unanimously approved the penalty increases; Lt. Shearn returned to her seat; and the question of fireworks sales permits was addressed.

This too seemed of interest to some of the media and several audience members. However, Fire Chief Demetrius Shaffer's proposal to end the issuance of new permits turned out to be as fair and equitable a solution as possible. Several councilmembers expressed concerns that other nonprofit groups in the city might want to secure permits for the sale of so-called "safe and sane fireworks" in order to raise funds. The chief's proposal would end permit access for any groups other than the 12 current permit holders.

Finally, council agreed to approve the new restrictions. It was the only viable compromise between a strong desire to end the serious risks faced each Independence Day when dozens of dangerous illegal fireworks are detonated, and a desire to supply Newark residents with the entertainment of legal fireworks.

By the end of this discussion, all but one media representative had left for the night. They missed the real news altogether. When it came time for council announcements, Vice Mayor Johnson quietly announced her resignation after 22 years-to the week-of her original swearing-in as a councilmember. Expressing considerable fond regrets, Johnson explained that a recent job offer from Hayward Superior Court of Alameda County would require too much of the time she routinely committed to city affairs. After lengthy discussions with her family, Johnson elected to resign from council.

All four fellow councilmembers plus numerous staff and residents expressed a mix of praise and sadness. Nearly all also tried to gently talk Johnson into remaining on council. Though clearly regretful, Johnson was adamant that she had no choice but to tender her resignation, effective the following day.

State law requires that council appoint a replacement within 30 days of Johnson's resignation. As a result, the City of Newark is presently seeking applicants to fill that seat until the November elections. Applications are available at City Clerk Sheila Harrington's office. She may be reached at (510) 790-7266.

Interested residents must be registered voters.

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