A thinner-looking Art deWerk made his rounds inside La Cascada Mexican Restaurant Wednesday evening during his first public appearance following his sudden exit from the city of Ceres.
The popularity of the former police chief, who departed city employment on June 16 after 15 years as both Public Safety Director and acting city manager, was evident by the numbers who turned out for a special meet and greet that was open to the public.
"How are you doing? I heard you retired," said one woman who approached deWerk, 60, at the door of the restaurant. "Yeah, something like that," replied deWerk with a warm smile and handshake. "We're all trying to figure out what it was."
The sudden end of deWerk's career with the city of Ceres has been shrouded in mystery and rife with community speculation. DeWerk appeared guarded in what he told friends at the event.
"Read between the lines," said deWerk. "You saw the contract. You think if I left in great standing that they would ban from the building and tell me I couldn't communicate with the employees? That's what's got everybody riled up.
"Everybody I talk to asks what's really going on and my only answer would be I'm basically under a gag agreement."
DeWerk did comment that "it became obvious I needed to go. That's really it and we negotiated some departure terms."
DeWerk had been on two months of medical leave for an April surgery to remove a benign brain tumor but officially returned to work the week of June 9. At the City Council meeting of June 9, deWerk publicly criticized management direction to not fill the deputy police chief position created by the retirement of Mike Borges as "such a bad idea." The next day, a closed session was held that centered on deWerk. No action was taken but during a June 16 closed session a severance agreement was worked out and deWerk was gone.
City Manager Toby Wells said deWerk was not fired. However, the Courier learned that deWerk's departure stemmed from his insistence of working while under doctor's orders not to work and that his behavior posed a risk to the city. Evidence that deWerk would not let go of his job duties while on medical leave was born out in an April 25 email to city staff members and others in which he stated, "I have no intention of letting my attention to major organizational issues slip, as things like major policy decisions, assignments, promotions, transfers, and new hires will not be decided upon without my direct involvement. I will continue checking emails periodically and returning messages as needed. I will also be available for some meetings."
One city official spoke to the terms of deWerk's agreement that forbids him access to the police and city buildings. Apparently deWerk's departure made the City Council aware of a past practice that allowed any former police officer access to the police building. The official said that policy needed to stop and that deWerk wasn't being singled out.
During his meet and greet, however, deWerk commented that a recent letter to the editor written by Ed Persike on deWerk's departure was "the most accurate description" of the situation. In his letter, Persike insinuated that the grand jury will be investigating Mayor Chris Vierra's association with business partner Shane Parson in a new engineering firm. Vierra has denied rumors of shady dealings in City Hall.
Well-wishers who attended Wednesday's event included Kathy Stevenson, the widow of slain police Sgt. Howard Stevenson, and his son Bryce Stevenson.
"We all came down to say hi," said former Ceres police Ron Richter. "I thanked him for who he was, and what I did and what he taught me. Of course, I thanked him for what he did more so for Howard. That was his first incident losing an officer and it was probably hard on him."
Richter noticed that no members of the Ceres City Council or city staff attended.
"You know they left on bad terms from what my understanding is," said Richter. "Rather than be whatever, he said basically ‘kiss my a - -, I quit.' But that was the council's choice. I just look at what he did for the government overall during his career and I just shake my head. Why can't intelligent people get together and come to an understanding over an argument or a disagreement?"
Another well-wisher was Millie Fisher, a former city dispatcher who worked under deWerk.
"It's just hard to believe," said Fisher. "You can't help but sit and wonder what caused this?"
DeWerk's departure left a bad taste in the mouth of Enrique Perez, who had been volunteering with the Police Department as a liaison with the community.
"When he was out and I sensed this was coming, I re-retired," said Perez. "I only came back to help him. I mean, it was like Batman and Robin really. We did well together. In all my 30 years of being in law enforcement I've never worked with a guy like that."
Lenley Duncan, the former commander of the Modesto office of the California Highway Patrol, showed up in uniform.
"He's a great guy," said Duncan of deWerk. "You know, we were sitting here just talking and said, you know, this is not an official thing, this is an unofficial thing and you can tell it's his friends."
Ceres Police Sgt. Danny Vierra and president of the Ceres Police Officers Association said his group will likely be honoring deWerk when he officially retires from city service on Feb. 28, 2015.
DeWerk said he is not intending to retire permanently but focused now on healing while getting in some time on a kiteboard.
"I still have a ways to go before I'm completely healed. I saw the surgeon the other day. I guess it takes about a year to really feel better. It's just going to take time. I'm way ahead of schedule. Most people take a really long before they get outdoors."
He said he turned down offers from two organizations "but I just told them the timing's not right. I've got a lot of experience. To say I'm done, I'm really not."
When asked what his greatest contribution to Ceres, deWerk said others have told him he was a "stabilizing force in the city government. Lots of things have changed but there's been a lot of consistency with how I treated the employees and public. And we did drive down crime. We brought fire and police into the contemporary times. It's been a lot of stuff and it's not things I would say I did a great job but I'm happy to have been a player in the things that needed to be done."