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City manager transition comes at time of crisis
• Wells hired by Turlock amid controversy
Tom Westbrook 2
Tom Westbrook is preparing to become interim Ceres city manager. - photo by Jeff Benziger

Community Development Director Tom Westbrook will serve as interim city manager of Ceres once Toby Wells steps down next month to take the city of Turlock’s top position.

The transition comes at a time of great uncertainty for every community in America due to the coronavirus.

“I think of that type of exciting and a little bit challenging and I think when you throw a worldwide pandemic on top of it, it makes it even more of a challenge,”

said Westbrook. “But I’m going to do the best job that I can just like I’ve done in every position that I’ve had with the city.

“Yeah, probably not the optimum circumstance in which to get up to speed in the transition but there’s no other choice. We’re looking to move forward, to keep the city in the best position that we can be economically, financially. We have budget season around the corner so there’s a lot of important things that are still continuing to happen even though we’re dealing with this Covid-19 stuff.”

Westbrook, 45, was hired by the city Jan. 29, 2001as an associate planner. His next title will be his eighth over the past 19 years. He previously worked in Yuma County, Arizona, for two years and later as an unpaid interim with the city of Patterson.

Wells was hired on March 10 as Turlock’s city manager when the Turlock City Council took heat over the closed session interview process leading up to his hiring. He will officially start in Turlock on April 10.

The Turlock City Council voted 4-1– with Mayor Amy Bublak opposing – a three-year contract with Wells at an annual base salary of $220,000.

Wells has spent the past six years serving as the Ceres city manager. He previously served as the Public Works Director.

“I will definitely miss the people of Ceres and look forward to seeing the community thrive,” said Wells. “Through the leadership and direction of the Ceres City Council and the amazing dedication and hard work of city staff, I believe we were able to accomplish a great deal for the citizens of Ceres. I am proud of what we have accomplished.”

During his tenure in Ceres, Wells focused on rebuilding the organizational structure for operational efficiencies and was involved with the hiring of many key management personnel. His development background was essential in delivering key city projects which included such actions as the re-development of the downtown area, and update to the city’s outdated 1997 General Plan, the initial development of the future ACE train station, the design of a new interchange for Mitchell Road, and a state-of-the-art surface water treatment facility that will deliver safe drinking water to the residents of Ceres for decades to come.

This won’t be Wells’ first time serving the city of Turlock. He was an associate civil engineer for the city from 1998 to 2000.

He has a Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineering from Fresno State and is a licensed registered civil engineer.

Wells is slated to start his position on April 20.

Turlock has been without a permanent city manager since Robert Lawton left in August 2019. In October 2019, the City Council announced that they decided to appoint Turlock Municipal Services Director Michael Cooke as a long-term interim city manager through November 2020. However, in February the Turlock City Council started having closed session meetings with the city manager position listed as the topic of discussion.

On March 10, the Turlock council considered in open session a contract for approval naming Wells as the next city manager. The hiring process was met with dissent from the mayor and members of the public.

“It’s consistent that you’re not being transparent with the public,” said Tim Redd, a detective with the Turlock Police Department. “In a time when the community is saying to you folks, ‘Hey, we don’t trust the way you’re driving this city — be more transparent,’ you hold a closed session interview — an interview that could have happened in public. We’ve had public attended events where we’ve interview people before. Nothing against Mr. Wells, I don’t know him…What is at issue is the fact that you basically hired this man in secret off a list from three years ago.”

City Attorney Doug White said that Wells was among candidates in the city manager recruitment process that started in 2017 when Gary Hampton resigned. In 2017, the city contracted recruitment firm Robert Neher & Associates to find qualified candidates. Those candidates were then interviewed and ranked by members of three panels of community members and a panel of city executive staff. 

Lawton was hired in 2018 from that recruitment process, but served only 13 months of his three-year contract.

“It’s nothing to do with Mr. Wells, but I stand here and I wonder…you spent $40,000 to find out if we should get a tax, you can spend $20,000 to run the panels like we always have here,” said Westside Ministries director JoLynn DiGrazia, a member of the community panel during the last time candidates were interviewed for city manager. “It’s not right to choose a city manager based on the opinion of a few. We need help. We have big city problems here…I just don’t see how we’re going to move forward without the transparency.”

Despite that councils routinely decide personnel matters behind closed doors – which is legal – Cynthia McClellan called the process “absolutely heinous” and questioned the council’s pledge to be transparent.

“We’re sitting here discussing the most important decision we can make, and at the same time we’re talking about we want the public’s trust,” said Bublak. “Well guess what? When you do everything behind closed doors in 28 days…we did this, but we publicly told you we had Mr. Cook as permanent interim, that’s what we told you. So, here we are; we lied to you.”

Along with the closed session interviews in a shortened time period, the mayor also voiced her opposition to Wells’ salary – $5,000 more than Lawton’s base salary of $215,000. 

Turlock Councilmember Nicole Larson defended the council’s decision to consider prior city manager candidates in closed session interviews.

“I’ve seen this city suffer from political influences involved with city administrators being hired and let go and because of that I wanted to ask the question if we could look at the people that we have interviewed before,” said Larson.

She continued: “The city manager position is absolutely crucial for the tasks that we are charged with taking on in the city. Because of that and the issues that are coming up, this was a situational based recommendation and it’s something that I think we’re lucky to have it. I think we’re lucky to have a candidate who has been involved in our search process — the one our community members speak so highly of — and someone who is willing to step up to this challenge.”

Turlock Vice Mayor Andrew Nosrati and Councilman Gil Esquer also voiced support for the need of closed session interviews.

“People think we’re rushing this,” said Esquer. “I don’t know, maybe we are but we’re out of time and if we don’t make a decision right now, if we decide to go forward with this (tax) measure it’s not going to happen. The people will vote for it or not, but if we can’t get it ready and on the ballot, it’s going to fail right off the bat. So, we need to do whatever we can to prepare. We need a professional city manager up here to do the job. And, as I noted earlier, no one had any objections to the person we’re selecting…We need to make some decisions.”

“Mr. Wells understands Turlock’s needs because he has experienced them from multiple angles. Mr. Wells has lived in Turlock for 21 years with his wife raising his children in Turlock schools and was even a Turlock city employee at the beginning of his career. He was involved in the design of our regional sports complex, our Monte Vista Crossings that we all shop at every day and most of the downtown infrastructure as well. He then went on to work with private developers as a project manager. When he was working for the city of Livermore, he was recognized as the employee of the year. Later, when he arrived in Ceres…he was promoted to head of the Public Works and then appointed city manager. This is the first time…in 10 years that Turlock has potentially hired a person as our next city manager who actually has city management experience,” said Larson.

“Based on our current fiscal challenges, and lots still to come, I believe that Mr. Wells can hit the ground running. He will bring the much-needed consistency, experienced leadership and normalcy that we are trying to regain in the city of Turlock and at City Hall,” she continued.