With her hands shaking and her voice quivering, a teenage girl took the podium at an Atwater City Council meeting this week to denounce comments a former planning commissioner made online.
“His statements would represent Atwater as a whole,” Arissa Higgins told the council. “Would you like Atwater to be viewed as a community that discriminates against multiple communities?”
The 17-year-old was referring to a comment Fred Warchol posted on the Merced Sun-Star’s website last month. Warchol’s comment, which has since been removed by the newspaper, was on his Letter to the Editor titled, “A very expensive truck for rescuing cats.” The Jan. 12 letter criticized the city for buying an $890,048 firetruck that didn’t include hoses or other equipment.
After a heated online exchange between Warchol and a man who identifies himself as “Gordon Williams,” Warchol said Williams “scurries” around Atwater only 20 percent of the time. “The rest of his time is spent wearing his pink dress in the Castro Street area of SF,” Warchol posted, later adding that Williams is the kind of “scum” that uses lies and deception to attack America.
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As president of Buhach Colony High’s gay-straight alliance, Higgins said the comment about a pink dress in San Francisco offended her. She compared it to high school bullying, which she has personally experienced. “If you attack a social issue like that, you’d be willing to attack another person,” Higgins told the Sun-Star after the council meeting.
Warchol said Higgins was used by certain people to further a long-standing vendetta against him. He said Higgins was put up to making a public statement by another former commissioner, Linda Dash.
“It’s sad that a young, underage girl is provided with a political attack statement to be read at a meeting,” Warchol, 71, said in a telephone interview.
Higgins confirmed a relationship with Dash, a pageant director for Miss Merced County, through her participation in the competition this year, but said the words she read at the meeting were her own. Dash could not be reached for comment.
Warchol said accusations that he’s a bigot are “outrageous and untrue.” He said Williams also directed personal attacks against him, calling him a criminal and making disparaging remarks about his family. Those comments have been removed from the website by one of its administrators.
Although Williams said he’s owned property in Atwater since 1963, the Sun-Star was unable to verify his identity. There are no public records linking him to the city; he doesn’t appear to be a registered voter or have utility bills with the city.
His Facebook account boasts friendships with many familiar Atwater faces – pastor Bill Barkman, county Supervisor Daron McDaniel and insurance agent Eric Lee – but all of them say they’ve never met him. As of Thursday night, his account listed nine friends.
During a phone interview this week, Williams said he’s a “quiet man” who travels frequently for work, including to San Francisco. Though he’s not gay, Williams said, he found Warchol’s comment about gays to be “reprehensible.”
“It sends a message that Atwater is a backwater community full of bigotry and ignorance,” Williams said. “I don’t believe that’s the message we want to put out there. I was offended and a couple of my friends that are gay were extremely offended.”
McDaniel, who was recently contacted by some residents about the issue, took an opposite stand by defending Warchol’s right to free speech.
“It doesn’t mean I agree with it, but that’s the liberty we have in living in the United States,” the supervisor said. “A lot of people have died for our freedom of speech, and you have to defend the liberties of people to say what they want.”
But saying whatever he wanted could have cost Warchol a seat on the city’s Community Development and Resources Commission. The “super” commission, which includes planning, traffic, and parks and recreation, had a recent vacancy. Warchol was scheduled to interview for the position Monday, but pulled out at the last minute.
Warchol said he backed out of the interview because several City Council members who would conduct the interview and rank the candidates were not present. “I was disappointed that all five of the decision-makers were not there,” Warchol said. Councilmen Brian Raymond and Joe Rivero were absent Monday.
For the first time, the council asked the candidates about adhering to a policy that prohibits personal attacks by city officials. Mayor Pro Tem Larry Bergman said the question wasn’t prompted by Warchol’s behavior, but that his recent comments would have been a factor in whether he would be appointed as a commissioner again.
“They are acting as agents of the city, whether they are appointed or elected,” Bergman said. “It’s important the public knows the city does not condone or tolerate that type of discriminative behavior. We’ve had serious issues in the past, and people making comments like that give us a black eye. We don’t need that.”