February 14, 2006 > Newark's John Becker takes the reins
Newark's John Becker takes the reins
Following the retirement December 31, 2005 of Alberto Heuzo as Newark City Manager, John Becker has assumed the role of top administrator for this dynamic city. Although groomed for the position over the last year, there are always surprises when assuming a new position. Mr. Becker shares his thoughts after being Newark's city manager for the past month.
TCV: Were you well prepared to become city manager on January 1?
Becker: Al did an excellent job of preparing me; in fact his transition plan called for him to start letting go of things months prior to his retirement. In the final month that he was here, Al stepped out of the way completely giving me all contact with the council and decisions with department heads. When January 1 came around, I was able to hit the ground running, so it was a smooth transition.
I didn't realize what the difference would be when Al left, but immediately noticed the absence of a 'safety net' that has always been there throughout my career. When issues come to my desk that is where they stop. There is an expectation that I am going to address those issues correctly without making mistakes.
The other thing I didn't realize is how much contact I would have with members of the city council on a day-to-day basis. When I was assistant city manager, I had contact with some city council members on issues related to the departments I was responsible for, but I didn't realize how much filtering went on from the city manager's perspective.
I enjoy doing this; I have always liked a challenge. One of the nice things about coming into this position is that I have already been in the organization for almost 15 years and have a comfort level with people I am working with, avoiding that learning curve. I have worked with most members of the council for almost my entire career except Ana Apodaca (elected to council in 2005), know their style and how best to communicate with them.
TCV: What is your style of leadership? Will it be different from previous city managers?
Becker: I have a slightly different style than Al and he had a different style from Paul Tong who preceded him. Paul was analytical and did things very systematically. He was a good negotiator. Those were his strengths. Al's style was quite different - more of a 'people person.' He walked among the people in the organization and had an excellent rapport with them, less formal.
That is my style as well. I feel very comfortable with that approach. I came up through the ranks, starting as an analyst and have worked side-by-side with many of the people I am working with now. This has created a good comfort level. My style is similar to Al's with a couple of exceptions. I am more conservative on financial matters; Al used to tease me about being too conservative; I am not as much of a 'risk-taker.' I am a cross between the analytical and people person city manager and will continue that style. I like to be approachable and manage by walking around, talking with people and knowing what is going on. I believe they appreciate that as well.
I haven't noticed a big difference in how people are talking with me or approaching me which is good. I think people are comfortable with the transition. Things are running smoothly now although there are challenges.
TCV: Will Newark city government restructure?
Becker: Yes. Over the last four years, the city has undergone a tremendous turnover due to retirements. For many years there was tremendous stability in the mid to upper management level. That has now changed. We have lost over 500 years of experience over the last four years - the city manager, department heads and management personnel. We have some openings now that have not been filled; a personnel director position that we are recruiting for, city clerk and Jim [Reese] will be leaving December 15. Besides being Assistant City Manager, he has responsibilities as department head of Community Development and Finance. When he steps out the door, it will leave a void in three different areas.
Community Development is critical and must have the right person. From talking to my peers and consultants that specialize in recruiting, it will be a very difficult position to fill. We should be okay on recruiting for the personnel director position and we have an assistant fire chief position that is open for which we are beginning a recruitment process.
TCV: Do you anticipate filling these open positions or restructuring to cover the responsibilities?
Becker: We are currently, and have been for the last year or so, operating under a 'flexible hiring freeze' which means that every time a position is vacant - no matter what level - we look at this as an opportunity to reorganize and shift responsibilities. We are going to continue to do that. That has enabled us to save almost $1 million in the last year. With change comes opportunity and I look at this as an opportunity. When we look at vacancies that will occur, for instance when Jim retires, I will look at that as an opportunity for me to look at how we might restructure the finance, personnel and community development area.
I was a senior analyst when the finance director left to assume another position. I became the finance director. The personnel director left and Al took that as an opportunity to restructure and create an Administrative Services Department. When he decided to promote two Assistant City Managers, that structure went away and became part of the responsibility of Assistant City Manager. So, I see continuing that process. It really depends on who we hire in management positions. If we have a candidate for the personnel director position who has qualifications in another area, I would have no hesitation in restructuring so that person would direct operations in two departments.
In the police department, Captain Lance Morrison just retired. That is an opportunity for that department to reorganize. At this point, I do not think we are going to fill that Captain's position, rather flatten the organization and give some opportunity for staff to move up. In the fire department, I mentioned we would be filling the Assistant Chief position that has been vacant since Bill Cody left almost a year ago. That has presented an opportunity for our Battalion Chiefs to take on some additional responsibilities.
TCV: Has the fiscal bottom line improved?
Becker: The recession and state take-aways are continuing and have flattened our revenues. However, expenditures are continuing to grow - salary increases, pensions, utility costs, etc. We are continuing to lose money to the state from the so-called 'triple flip' which in theory continues to give cities their money but has caused significant problems with cash flow. We are not out of the woods yet; the economy has not completely rebounded yet and South County is slower to respond to recovery than other parts of the state. The belt-tightening such as the hiring freeze, shifting internal funds, raising some service fees will continue at least through the next budget cycle (a two-year cycle). Property tax has been good although we are seeing that flatten a bit since the market is cooling. Sales tax is rebounding - all signs are for a positive Christmas season. Since we are always a quarter behind in seeing the numbers, we haven't really seen the last quarter numbers yet.
Economic and community development in Newark has not recovered to the levels we saw prior to the dot com bust. We are seeing some recovery. We have some infill projects, Home Depot and the new Ohlone College Campus.
TCV: What about the NewPark Mall improvements?
Becker: At this point they have an approved project. They are still working with their corporate office to work out the final staging.
TCV: Anything happening with the proposed development on Cedar near I-880?
Becker: We did a feasibility study to see if it made sense to rezone that property from limited industrial to high density residential. Based on community feedback and opposition by residents in the adjacent neighborhood, some of the tenants and a major property owner who indicated that regardless of what the city did, he had no intention of selling his property, I made a recommendation not to move forward at this time. It doesn't mean it might not happen sometime in the future, but for now we are looking at other alternatives to meet our housing goals.
TCV: Is one of those alternatives around the Newark Dumbarton Rail station proposed on Willow Street?
Becker: I cannot say for sure exactly what is going to happen. There is a specific plan for that area adopted by the council in 1999. That plan was built around Ohlone College locating in that area and surrounded by high tech industrial. When the decision was made to move the campus to Cherry Street, that current specific plan was made obsolete. So, we have plans to update or redo the plan entirely. We are waiting for the property owners to get together and agree that they want to move forward. The city paid for the first specific plan and we would like the property owners to come forward with a proposal to redo that specific plan.
MTC (Metropolitan Transportation Commission) has adopted a Transit Oriented Development policy which calls for a certain housing density along the entire Dumbarton rail corridor which includes five stations. Newark would be expected to have a fair share of that housing. It is my understanding that the goal for the corridor has been met. We are willing to discuss any proposal at this point; we are not going to shut the door on anything. We want to do something in that area that is exciting and provide amenities for the community, revenue generation and perhaps housing as well.
TCV: Is the Newark station still projected to be a simple covered platform?
Becker: At this time, that has not changed. It is still designed as a covered platform and spaces for parking.
TCV: Is there any new information of a golf course in Newark?
Becker: There is nothing new on the golf course and residential housing at this point. I am approached by individuals on a fairly regular basis with ideas and questions about that area, called "Area Four." Usually a developer will look at this site, read the general plan and learn about the background. After looking at the issues involved - property owners, environmental challenges - I don't hear back from them. I believe that area will need to be developed with cooperation from all of the property owners. Environmental concerns will be a major challenge for anyone who wants to develop that area.
TCV: Will the General Plan be rewritten soon?
Becker: Not for the next several years. We are allowed extensions so I would imagine we will start the process of updating the General Plan in the next five years. If you look at the General Plan now, it runs through 2007 and there is flexibility when you have to actually adopt or update a new plan. We have time. It is a very intense process that requires extensive coordination and input. We have a very lean planning and development staff, an economic development manager, one planner and one clerical support person. That is not the result of attrition. We use an outside consultant to handle some specialized projects. For a General Plan update, we would go outside for help.
TCV: How is Newark handling the maintenance of its infrastructure?
Becker: Newark has done a very good job maintaining its streets. Our Public Works Director, Dennis Jones, is doing an excellent job on making sure we are aware of the costs of delayed repairs. We have a very comprehensive curb and gutter program with a few minor exceptions, we have completed the entire city with curb and gutter. This is almost unprecedented with cities but we made a conscious effort to spend our gas tax money on roads. We are building new facilities - we just opened fire station 1 to replace an aging station. We have put money in station 3.
Where we have a challenge is City Hall. This building houses our police department - we are running out of space. It has an aging HVAC system and it is not energy efficient. The building is not laid out well for our needs and the structure is about 40 years old. The annex was built in the early '80's. The building is not falling apart, but it does present challenges. We also have some challenges with police locker room facilities, workout and conference rooms. We are reaching a point where this facility needs to be replaced. In other areas, we are in pretty good shape. The key to this is preventive maintenance which has been given a priority.
TCV: Will you continue to put a high value on city-school relationships?
Becker: I see a continuation of this partnership. I inherited this and starting with the strategic plan which was adopted in 1998, I have seen real improvement in participation and accomplishments of that group. I worked with that group for two years. There has been a real change in the last few years with a lot more school district folks involved, principals, the superintendent, private citizens. This is very exciting and unique to Newark.
The city is in its fourth year of funding the HOSTS (Helping One Student to Succeed) in which over 30 city employees participate. The genesis of that was a seminar in Sacramento attended by Councilmember Nagy, Al Huezo and Superintendent Ken Sherer. They came back excited about partnership opportunities. I think that was the impetus for the strategic plan for public schools. The mayor focused on the importance of improving education in the city of Newark. This close relationship has been building every year.
As a result of an observation by the mayor at a Newark Days parade, watching wonderful marching bands from other schools and districts, he explored how the city could help 'jump-start' instrumental music programs in our schools which had suffered from budget cuts over the years. The city has financed the instrumental music program over the last two years and now over 550 students participate at the elementary and junior high level. The plan is for the program to be self-supporting and the Newark Education Foundation is doing a good job on funding that program.
The city also funds and staffs the after-school recreation programs at the elementary schools. This provides an option for parents who want their children to have a safe place to have fun and have an opportunity to do homework.
TCV: Did the Eddie "Gwen" Arajo case cause Newark to move in a different direction?
Becker: I don't think so. The reason Newark is so unique is that we think of ourselves as having small town values but able to think big time. You can still pick up the phone and call the mayor, city manager or a councilmember and we are responsive. The reason for our stability is that I believe people are satisfied with their representatives. Gwen was a wake-up call for the city. PFLAG (Parents, Friends and Families of Lesbians and Gays) was surprised by how responsive we were. At the end of the day, this strengthened our community. This brought to light issues that people were not comfortable discussing but after talking about these things, you become more comfortable and find out that everyone is really concerned about the same things.
TCV: What are the top priorities for the city of Newark?
Becker: The top priority is public safety. The council has always been very clear about this. When I talk about this flexible hiring freeze, we have been very careful not to impact the rank and file of our fire and police departments. We have continued our CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) program and still offer our Citizen Police Academy, D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program and GREAT (Gang Resistance Education and Training). Those programs are fully funded. Our education partnerships are very important as well. These affect not only the students participating, but there is a ripple effect when schools have a good reputation and test scores are rising. This makes our school district more desirable which has an impact on our community, housing prices and businesses. This is why education has been such a priority for our council.