One week after a closed session that led to the departure of Art deWerk as director of Public Safety, the Ceres City Council on Monday heard from a public gushing with praise and a sense of loss.
Many took turns at the podium to praise deWerk and suggested the council would have a tough time replacing the popular chief.
DeWerk's 15 years with the city ended June 16 behind closed doors in a cloak of mystery. DeWerk had been on two months of medical leave but returned to work the week of June 9. A closed session was held on Tuesday, June 10 concerning deWerk. No action was taken, said City Attorney Mike Lyions, but during a second closed session (June 16) deWerk was gone. City Manager Toby Wells told the Courier that deWerk was not fired.
Frank Johnson, president of the Stanislaus County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), said he will file a Freedom of Information Act request for disclosure of what occurred in the closed session.
"It's unclear to what the findings were, how it was done, was there a Brown Act violation, was there a Bagley-Keene Act violation?" asked Johnson. "We're unclear to what it is so we will be filing a Freedom of Information Act concerning his departure and why."
Johnson said the loss of deWerk would send back the city "farther than it's ever been."
Johnson took digs at the council for the elimination of city sponsorship of the NAACP /Ceres Police Stop Gap Health Services which opened a clinic in January of 2012 in downtown Modesto. DeWerk supported the program when Dr. Dan Lucky brought health screenings to Ceres. The council voted earlier this year to break ties with the clinic out of concerns about potential liability in the event of malpractice.
"There are a lot of people watching and very angry about what is going on," said Johnson.
He vowed to return when the council was in "full session."
Mayor Chris Vierra and Vice Mayor Bret Durossette were absent from Monday's meeting.
Former Councilman Guillermo Ochoa praised deWerk for "his great, almost brilliant" projects.
"I understand you can't tell us what happened behind closed doors but ... because of the way the agenda was posted ... having been a colleague of the chief for six years and having seen him as a mentor ... it was very difficult to see those words in the paper."
Ochoa was making reference to the closed session agenda titled, "Public employee discipline/dismissal/release."
Ken Groves expressed his respect for deWerk, calling him "irreplaceable."
"He treated every individual like family," said Groves. "He brought a lot of loving connections and cohesiveness ... he's going to have shoes that are very difficult to fill."
Len Shepherd said he remembered moving to Ceres in 1993 and finding a fire station as a "fire trap." He credited deWerk with overseeing construction of "two of the most firefighter friendly fire stations in Ceres. That all came about under Art deWerk's tenure 15 years ago. The man was brilliant in the fact that he let the people who were going to live there help design them."
Shepherd said deWerk "has done nothing but make this community better every day of every year that he's been here."
Don Cool credited deWerk with taking the time to meet with him about problems in his neighborhood, but also said others have helped.
"I've also had a lot of other people from Ceres PD do the same thing," said Cool. "I don't believe anybody is irreplaceable. If you think that I think you get into trouble. He was good. He had a long run here. Sometimes it's just time for change. I don't think we're giving credit to some of the other folks that we have employed here with the city."
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.
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 a June 16 press release, Mayor Chris Vierra praised deWerk 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.
The city has placed Deputy Chief Bryan Nicholes in charge of the Fire Division and Lt. Brent Smith in the role as acting police chief. It is unknown if the council plans to replace deWerk or dismantle the Public Safety Department concept to save money in a budget that contains a $1.8 million structural deficit.