The search for a new city manager in Atwater will continue following the announcement on Wednesday that the man picked for the job said he no longer wants it.
Graeme Mitchell, who was named as the next city manager on Nov. 13, declined the offer, City Attorney Tom Terpstra said Wednesday.
Reached for comment on Wednesday, Mitchell said he detailed his reasons in person and in writing for why he turned down the job in communications with the City Council. He declined to comment publicly on those reasons Wednesday.
"I will leave the messaging to them," he said.
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The council accepted his decision during a closed session meeting when the council also extended its interim city manager contract with John Bramble through the end of the year, Terpstra said. That contract was originally set to end on Friday.
The Atwater search has been ongoing in different forms since the last city manager, Frank Pietro, retired almost a year ago. The council members have butted heads with the council generally split into two camps.
The council voted 3-2 to hire Mitchell earlier this month. Mayor Jim Price and Councilman James Vineyard cast the “no” votes. The City Council approved a contract of $164,658 a year plus benefits.
Price and Vineyard publicly expressed displeasure with the hiring of Mitchell, a one-time UC Merced employee who has decades of experience in university management but has never worked for a city, officials confirmed.
Despite that, Price said on Wednesday he was ready to work with Mitchell. "My only reaction is that I'm sorry to see he chose not to be here," Price told the Sun-Star. "It's his choice."
Price said his goal is to hire a city manager with the experience, education and skills needed for the city of about 29,000
The next city manager will be walking into a city with a general fund debt of about $2.8 million. Though, Price has said the city is making progress on paying that down.
In a sternly written statement, Councilman Paul Creighton blasted Price, Vineyard and others saying they "ran off" Mitchell "before he was even given a chance."
Creighton said Price and Vineyard "publicly embarrassed" the new city manager as they spoke against Mitchell the night his hiring was announced. Mitchell was seated in the audience with family and friends.
"Mayor Price’s speech laid the ground for a toxic work environment before the new city manager was even given a chance to help save our city from (its) current trajectory of financial mismanagement and poor leadership," Creighton wrote.
Price called Creighton's statement "outrageous, totally outrageous and false," noting he pledged to work with Mitchell to improve the city. "My vote was a vote of oversight," Price said. "It wasn't a personal attack."
The mayor confirmed that the council named another potential candidate for the city manager job during closed session, but stopped short of giving the name, citing closed session rules.
Mitchell's departure wasn't the first bump in the road to pick a new administrator.
Applicant Scott Bride pulled his name out of the hat for the permanent job in May, citing a series of “conflicts” and “distractions” that kept the council from handling “serious issues.” He now works for the city of Merced.
Residents at a special council meeting in April complained about the perception of wrongdoing after one candidate, former Ceres police Chief Art de Werk, was seen at a restaurant with three council members. Council members denied discussing city business at the restaurant or violating any open-meeting laws.
Asked on Wednesday if de Werk was the candidate named in closed session, Price said he could neither confirm nor deny that his name came up.
Councilwoman Cindy Vierra said via a text message closed "session is confidential" and declined to discuss who was named.
Also pointing to confidentiality rules, Vineyard declined to name the candidate. He pushed back against Creighton's comments. Vineyard expressed reservations with the decision earlier this month to hire Mitchell but said he wanted the new hire to be successful.
"I vowed to help him be successful," he said
Questions also have been raised about de Werk’s relationship with Vierra, whose husband used to work for de Werk at the Ceres Police Department. Vierra has denied having a personal friendship with de Werk and brushed off criticisms, saying she doesn’t have any conflict of interest.
Attempts to reach Councilman Brian Raymond by phone were unsuccessful.
Price said the next city manager will be taking a leadership role working for a divided council.
"They're coming into a city and a council that's in disagreement," Price said. "That's a sad commentary on all of us."