After a split vote on Monday, Atwater has a new city manager.
The City Council approved a contract with a $164,658-a-year salary for Graeme Mitchell, a one-time UC Merced employee who has decades of experience in university management but has never worked for a city, officials confirmed.
The council voted 3-2 to hire him. Mayor Jim Price and Councilman James Vineyard cast the “no” votes.
The former top administrator, Frank Pietro, retired in December, and the city has used interim leaders in the meantime.
The city manager search has seen controversy.
Interim City Manager John Bramble was hired in June after the previous interim leader, Scott Bride, pulled his name out of the hat for the permanent job. McBride now works for the city of Merced.
McBride said in May he no longer wanted the job. In a statement to the Sun-Star, he said he decided to step away after a series of “conflicts” and “distractions” kept the council from handling “serious issues.”
Residents at a special council meeting in April complained about the perception of wrongdoing after the other candidate, former Ceres police Chief Art de Werk, was seen at a restaurant with three council members. Councilmembers denied discussing city business at the restaurant or violating any open-meetings laws.
Mitchell was called “refreshing” with a “pedigree second to none” by the members who voted for him. The members of the council who voted against Mitchell questioned if he has the expertise to run a city, though insisted they will now work to help him be successful.
Atwater leaders have butted heads over the process to pick a city manager in the past year in a city with a general fund debt of about $2.8 million.
“When you got the right tools and the right skills, you want to go and move a city forward,” Mitchell told the Sun-Star. “You don’t want someone to come along and muck it up.”
Mitchell, who said he lives just outside Atwater proper, came to the US from Australia in 1984. He owned his own business and worked at universities on both coasts, spending 18 years as campus manager at UCLA, he said.
Though he has not run a city, the UCLA campus of more than 40,000 students is like a city of its own, he said. “It’s like a city cubed, because of all the responsibilities,” he said.
Price disagreed. “It’s not like a city,” he told the Sun-Star. “He’s essentially going to be trained.”
He said the salary range Mitchell is being hired at is beyond the experience he brings. But, Price said, he’s now rooting for Mitchell.
“I want my city to succeed,” Price said. “We are not going to go backwards. We are going to go forward.”
Councilman Bryan Raymond said Mitchell is an “out-of-the-box” hire who has private and public sector experience. The council had nearly 50 applicants, according to city staffers.
“We had lots of traditional candidates,” Raymond said. “If you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you always got.”
He starts Dec. 1, according to the contract.