Art deWerk, who for 15 years oversaw the Ceres Public Safety Department and for four and a half years served as acting city manager, is no longer employed by the city of Ceres.
City officials remained tight-lipped about deWerk's departure after Monday's closed session Ceres City Council meeting, saying it was a confidential personnel matter.
"He was not fired," said City Manager Toby Wells. When asked if deWerk resigned, Wells repeated "he was not fired."
The city did however issue a press release in which they attributed this quote to deWerk: "...my recent medical issues have changed my priorities and the healing process will have to continue for some time to come. I am proud and honored to have been able to serve this community for a decade and half, and I want to thank my fellow officers and firefighters, all Ceres employees and the people of this community for their support and for making this a great place to live and work. I wish everyone the best."
City Attorney Mike Lyions would not answer questions about deWerk's departure nor about any details about severance pay.
Last week deWerk, 60, had returned to duty after two months of medical leave following the removal of a benign mass in his brain at a Bay Area hospital. He recently told the Courier that the surgery was more involved than doctors anticipated it would be. But days after returning to work, deWerk was again on medical leave. The Ceres City Council held a late Tuesday June 10 evening closed door personnel meeting about deWerk but said no action was taken. The meeting's focus was billed as "discipline/dismissal/release." Word of the closed session caused lots of speculation since it was about one of the city's department heads. When deWerk didn't show up the next day, nobody knew what took place until an email went out from City Manager Toby Wells explaining the continuation of medical leave for deWerk.
That action was followed up by Monday's closed session where a severance agreement was approved.
Lt. Brent Smith has been appointed to take over as police chief in deWerk's absence, said City Manager Toby Wells. Deputy Chief Bryan Nicholes is overseeing the Fire Division as he has the past two months.
DeWerk's relationship with the new City Council has been tenuous since December's council leadership change. On a number of occasions tension rose between deWerk and Councilmember Linda Ryno over the matter of the police department overtime. Not long after, deWerk volunteered to step down as city manager, a role he took on to help the city save money following the departure of City Manager Brad Kilger on Dec. 3, 2010. At the meeting of March 10, deWerk announced he was "giving a lot of thought to the fact that I've been in this acting city manager position which ... was supposed to be a six-month or one-year assignment. It's been three and a half years." He said a city manager change seemed appropriate since the rebounding economy has been causing more building activity and more proposals for projects. He mentioned being unable to keep up with a more aggressive Ceres Chamber of Commerce, predicting that president Renee Ledbetter would "overwhelm me because I run a fire department and a police department. I don't want to get in the way of the prosperity and forward progress of this city." DeWerk asked the council to revisit the city's situation to ask "if this is an arrangement that you wish to have continue? That's a fair question and if the council determines that it's time to move to a new arrangement ... then I'm in total support of that."
He concluded his March 10 remarks by saying he was very proud of his service and noted "the best of my capabilities have been utilized."
Within a week the council had replaced deWerk as acting city manager with city engineer Toby Wells.
DeWerk appeared at only one council meeting following his April surgery. At the June 9 budget discussion, deWerk rejected Wells' recommendation that the city save money by freezing the deputy police chief position - vacant since the retirement of Mike Borges in March - as "such a bad idea." He said thin management would open the city open to lawsuits. Privately, though, some scoffed at deWerk's view, noting that the department operated well with two lieutenants during deWerk's medical leave absence.
DeWerk was hired by the city of Ceres in 1999. He previously served as police chief of Casper, Wyo., for eight years. He previously served with the Palo Alto Police Department for 18 years. He is an adjunct instructor at Modesto Junior College where he has provided part-time instruction for the past six years.
In Monday's press release, Mayor Chris Vierra praised Werk for his efforts leading Ceres through some of the most difficult times in the city's history, including the 2005 shooting of Sgt. Howard Stevenson and officer Sam Ryno, and serving as acting city manager through difficult financial times for the city. Mayor Vierra said Chief de Werk was instrumental in the passage of Measure H, the supplemental tax that was passed by the voters to enhance the city's police and fire services. DeWerk also played an important role in helping the Ceres Unified School District pass its Measure U, which helped to better serve the student community.
"Chief de Werk is responsible for building two of the finest public safety organizations in Stanislaus County and leaves a legacy of well-trained public safety professionals," said Vierra in the release.
Lt. Smith said he's unsure how long he will be acting police chief but said "I'm going to be in the position as long as he (Wells) has me here."
Smith, 45, is a 1987 Ceres High School graduate who served as a military police sergeant in the Army. He was stationed in Berlin when the Berlin Wall fell as was assigned to the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell for a year. He became a Ceres Police reserve officer in March 1993 and left to take a six-month stint as the deputy coroner of Merced County. Smith was hired on Oct 24, 1994 as a regular sworn officer for CPD and promoted to sergeant in 1998 by then Chief Pete Peterson. DeWerk promoted Smith as lieutenant in 2008. He has also served as tactical commander of the SWAT team and has been a hostage negotiator. Smith earned a master's degree in organizational leadership from Chapman University.
Smith is married to Ceres detective Tonya Smith. They have a nine-year-old son Cody.