There had been some scuttlebutt at City Hall for some time questioning Art deWerk's future.
After 15 years as police chief and nearly four years as acting city manager, he is gone and I confess feeling some sadness at his departure.
Art is a good man and an unforgettable figure. The first thing you notice is his sheer physical appearance. He seems to tower over everyone at 6-foot-7 but always looked closer to 7-foot-6 to me. His white hair stands in sharp contrast to his tanned skin. A simple handshake makes you aware that his hands are bigger than most. He has a winsome personality. Quick to smile, he's always been very warm and confident and privately expressed his Christian faith and traditional values with me. He offered me his support when facing difficulties.
DeWerk wasn't your ordinary chief. He did many things that were good for Ceres. There were times when he went on patrols and made arrests. He wrote a regular column in the Courier to educate the public about a variety of ways to stay safe. He was well spoken at public events. He celebrated with his employees when they were promoted or hired. He reached out to the Sikhs, and minorities. Art was an innovator. He had his heart in the right place when he had his department endorse a community nursing program - which ultimately formed a clinic in downtown Modesto under the auspices of the NAACP - that offered health screenings to the poorest of residents.
I've known Art for 15 years on a professional basis. He took the oath as police chief on Aug. 2, 1999 after Pete Peterson retired as chief that March. He was 45 and fresh from Casper, Wyo., where he had been in charge of a dual public safety department. DeWerk blew the lines to his oath administered by then City Clerk Brenda Herbert. The caption of that swearing-in photo in the Courier read in part: "...The new chief admitted he was nervous and blew his lines a couple of his lines. He later said his nervousness was indicative of his humbleness."
DeWerk said Casper was getting too big (210 employees) for him and Sunnyvale was calling but left no room for horses owned by he and his wife Jill. Ceres was perfect because of size and rural qualities. For a time, he rented land in nearby Waterford for the horses. However, in time deWerk moved into a travel trailer on some River Road property apart from Jill who tended to horses on their ranch near Placerville.
To this day I have never met Jill.
While in Casper, deWerk was involved in the media frenzy that surrounded the death of Matthew Shephard, the gay Wyoming man who was beaten, tortured and left to die on the night of Oct. 6, 1998, and who died six days later from severe head injuries. Shepard's murder brought national and international attention to hate crime legislation at state and federal levels. As Shepard's funeral was planned, fundamentalist pastor Lou Sheldon headed to Casper to protest at his funeral. In a conservative state like Wyoming, you might have expected Sheldon to be at least tolerated, if not welcomed. But the governor and deWerk led the charge to keep protestors away. DeWerk told the media: "We won't allow any kind of disruption of the services, period. I'm sure this will raise some freedom of speech issues and so on, but we have to do what's right, and essentially my first concern in this case is that the family ... and the mourning process that they're in is not interfered with."
Was he right? I'd say so. I wouldn't expect anything less of a man who follows Jesus Christ as he has since high school.
DeWerk's explanation of why he left Casper and his general tone when talking earlier this year about voluntarily stepping down as city manager - a post he quickly lost enthusiasm for when a new council was installed in December - struck the same chord. On leaving Casper, deWerk told the Courier in 1999: "I had been there (Casper) just long enough that I started seeing some leveling off of my contributions to this community ... When I got hired there I told the community and told my employees that the day that I felt I couldn't contribute like I had always envisioned then it would be time for me to go. I have all this energy. I wasn't about to accept an environment where I couldn't flourish. Because if I flourish and the employees do then they're happy and the community gets better service."
Fast forward 15 years to March. While during a restroom break after an intense council exchange over police overtime, deWerk shook his head and shared with me that he didn't understand why Ryno, the new councilmember, seemed to have a target on his back. He wondered aloud if it had anything to do with the 2005 shooting of her husband, Officer Sam Ryno.
It was also Ryno who scrutinized deWerk's pet project of the community nursing program. She led the call to have the city disavow itself from supporting the program out of concern for liability. Until Ryno, nobody on the council questioned the arrangement.
Sounding resigned and in retreat at the March 10 council meeting, deWerk seemed to be looking for a way out. He announced he had been "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 continued that a full-time city manager seemed appropriate with signs that the economy seemed to be rebounding with more building activity and more proposals for projects. He suggested that he was unable to keep up with the renewed 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." He asked the council to revisit the 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 finished by saying he was very proud of his past service and, with all the shades of Casper, uttered: "the best of my capabilities have been utilized."
Toby Wells, the city engineer, replaced deWerk as city manager days later.
It all seemed to go downhill from there. Then it appeared he was either making plans to bail from his police chief role.
In April he leaned into my ear and whispered that that he was having a surgery to remove a mass in his brain. "I haven't even told the council yet," he said. He expected it to be a simple procedure but the mass was larger than expected. At a chance encounter at the post office on June 9, deWerk told me there were times he felt like he was going to die during recovery. Still, I thought he looked good and he reported to me that he had been kite surfing twice since the surgery. Then he let me in on a sad turn in his personal life.
DeWerk alluded to his feelings that some "bad things" were going on at City Hall - even a lose reference to the new city manager - but said that he couldn't prove it.
Closed door sessions are just that - closed. When talking about personnel matters, the council doesn't have to explain issues. DeWerk is gone. For all we know, it's because he felt it was time to go. But the council owes it to the public to see the details of the severance package it offered the chief.
Feelings about deWerk at CPD are mixed. One high-ranking police official - an ally of the chief - said that I should do an investigation into the council, suggesting some vague areas to start. Another official suggested it was time for deWerk to go, commenting that he had often let others run the department.
I am generally not a conspiracy theorist. Unless someone can give sound evidence, I am going to take Art's departure at face value: That he wanted - or needed - to leave.
Art deWerk leaves 15 years' of service for which Cereans should be grateful and some of us will surely miss him. I might add, please keep Art in your prayers, that God may bless him the way he has blessed so many others in his life.
How do you feel? Let Jeff know at email@example.com.