Former Ceres Police Chief and acting city manager Art de Werk who left Ceres in 2014, has been tapped by the Atwater City Council to become city manager.
The Atwater City Council voted 3-2 on Dec. 11 to appoint de Werk, 63, who starts on the job Jan. 8. Councilmembers Cindy Cindy Vierra, Paul Creighton and Brian Raymond voted in the majority to approve de Werk's hiring while Mayor Jim Price and Councilman James Vineyard voted against him.
Controversy has dogged the selection process in the small Merced County city, as it did when de Werk departed Ceres city government after 15 years on the job. The three members who favored de Werk's selection came under fire in April for meeting with de Werk at a restaurant, which technically constituted a quorum and would be a violation of California's Brown Act if city business were discussed. Vierra, Creighton and Raymond denied that any discussion of city business took place with de Werk. A flap resulted, prompting the council hired a firm to hunt for city manager candidates. After the $24,900 report was complete, de Werk was not among the recommended candidates, said Eric Lee, 63, an Atwater insurance broker and community activist.
In selecting de Werk, the Atwater council passed over Scott McBride, who had served as city manager from January until July. Lee said acting City Manager McBride is popular and has done many good things for Atwater over the last year.
"We had a very acrimonious meeting on Monday with most of the people in the room screaming that Art deWerk has no business being in Atwater," Lee told the Courier.
Several in the community, Lee included, question if there is a conflict of interest between Councilwoman Vierra and de Werk given that her husband, Ceres Police Department Sgt. Danny Vierra, worked under de Werk's command. Vierra has denied a conflict and told the Merced Sun-Star that she has only spoken to de Werk "a couple brief occasions" when de Werk was her husband's boss. She also denied there are plans being hatched to appoint her husband as Atwater police chief, saying Sgt. Vierra retires in three years and would realize a pay cut if he were to take the job.
Some council watchers have expressed concerns about de Werk's association with Frank Johnson, the controversial former Stanislaus County NAACP chapter president. Johnson has filed numerous complaints against the Atwater Police Department. The association of the two stretches back to de Werk's days as Ceres police chief when he gave Ceres Police Department's support to a nurse practitioner health clinic which was later taken under the auspices of the NAACP. After the council absolved the city's affiliation with the NAACP /Ceres Police Stop Gap Health Services over liability concerns, Johnson accused the city of racism and threatened taking matters to the grand jury. City Manager Toby Wells said the city takes charges of racism very seriously and when asked to produce evidence of racist behavior, Johnson did not do so.
De Werk's employment with the city of Ceres terminated in June 2014. City officials would not speak about why de Werk left but City Manager Toby Wells said he was not fired. A week before de Werk and the city parted ways, he had returned to duty after two months of medical leave following the removal of a benign mass in his brain. Days after returning to work, de Werk was again on medical leave.
De Werk's relationship with the Ceres City Council had been tenuous for about six months with tension arising between de Werk and Councilmember Linda Ryno over the matter of the police department overtime. In March 2014, de Werk volunteered to step down as city manager, a role he took on following the departure of City Manager Brad Kilger on Dec. 3, 2010. He was replaced by Wells but remained as police chief. He appeared at only one Ceres City Council meeting between his April 2014 surgery and his departure, butting heads with Wells over staffing proposals.
De Werk 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.
Atwater Mayor Price suggested hiring a candidate not from the area to avoid any hint of controversy.
Price also objected to de Werk being given a salary of $13,721.56 per month - near the top of the six-step scale.
Turnover at Atwater's city manager's office has been high during the past 12 months. City Manager Frank Pietro retired in December 2016, setting the council on a bickering path to replace him. McBride filled in as an interim manager and was replaced by John Bramble. In November the council hired Graeme Mitchell for the job but he decided against taking the appointment two weeks later without giving reason.