A year has passed since Atwater began its grueling search for a new city manager and the City Council has made zero progress — but that could change Monday.
Art de Werk, a former city manager, police chief and public safety director in Ceres, will be considered formally to fill on an interim six-month basis the position vacated last year by the retirement of City Manager and Police Chief Frank Pietro.
De Werk’s reemergence as the apparent front-runner for the city’s top job renewed questions over de Werk’s connections to Atwater Councilwoman Cindy Vierra and two Central Valley men who’ve filed complaints against the city and its police department, Frank Johnson and Thomas Niederreuther.
Mayor Jim Price this week described the ties through Ceres between those four people as “a concern.”
“I do find it odd that they do have these connections,” Price said.
Ceres Connections: A conflict of interest or ‘wild conspiracy theories?’
De Werk served as police chief in Ceres from 1999 to 2014, including a roughly four-year stretch at the end of his tenure when he also served as the Ceres city manager.
During that time, de Werk worked with Niederreuther, who was a reserve police officer for a short time, and also worked with Johnson, who was president of the Modesto chapter of the NAACP at the time. In 2007, de Werk partnered with a nurse practitioner and later with the NAACP under Johnson to open a health clinic, according to a 2014 report from the Modesto Bee.
The City of Ceres collected donations for the program and wrote checks to the NAACP until February of 2014, the Sun-Star’s sister newspaper reported, when Ceres Councilwoman Linda Ryno raised concerns over potential liability issues in connection with the program.
Johnson, a Modesto man who no longer is involved with the NAACP, emerged in Atwater politics earlier this year when he accused Scott McBride — who was competing against de Werk for the city manager job — of operating a “secret hotel,” saying McBride was withholding tax revenue from Merced County in connection with the private rental unit. McBride denied any wrongdoing and then withdrew his candidacy for the position. McBride eventually took a new job in Merced. McBride described Johnson’s allegations as a smear campaign and also said the Atwater City Council was marred by too much conflict and too many distractions.
De Werk’s departure in 2014 from Ceres was controversial with many community leaders and others — including Johnson — speaking out in support of de Werk. Following a two-month medical leave, the City Ceres Council relieved de Werk of his duties, citing his medical issues. Johnson said he didn’t believe the city’s stated reason for parting ways with de Werk and pledged to investigate.
“It’s too significant for a man that has a record that is unblemished for something like this to take place,” Johnson said of de Werk in 2014. “Many of the programs that the minority community benefits from are going to be gone.”
De Werk’s departure also included an agreement with the city that raised other questions, including stipulations that de Werk not make any “disparaging remarks” about the city or enter of its private facilities without permission, The Modesto Bee reported.
De Werk, in an interview with the Sun-Star, acknowledged “resisting” his departure from Ceres three years ago, but said, in hindsight, he’s now “grateful” to the Ceres City Council. De Werk had recently returned after undergoing surgery to remove a benign mass in his brain when he was relieved of his position.
“I was angry at the time,” de Werk said. “But now, three years later, I understand they did what was best for me and the city. I wasn’t in a place to make a decision. Sometimes you don’t know what’s good for you.”
De Werk said he’s now “in excellent condition.”
“I’m thinking very clearly and I’m energized and want to get back to work contributing and doing something productive for society,” he said.
He also acknowledged knowing both Johnson and Niederreuther from his days running Ceres but said he doesn’t “see any conflict of interest.”
“The bottom line is, yes, I know them because of the role I had in the Ceres community, but that shouldn’t suggest that we interact socially a lot,” de Werk said in a telephone interview.
De Werk said he welcomed questions over his relationships with Niederreuther and Johnson, as well as lingering questions over his relationship with Vierra. Both de Werk and Vierra have acknowledged knowing each other from de Werk’s time in Ceres where he oversaw Vierra’s husband at the Ceres Police Department.
“From what I can tell, it’s natural in the Central Valley for people to know each other,” de Werk said. “But it doesn’t suggest that I’d be getting a job, perhaps, because of that. I don’t think that’s a legitimate suggestion.”
Vierra echoed de Werk’s feelings and said she’s become “frustrated” and feels “insulted” by suggestions that she would try to use her influence on the City Council to get jobs for her friends or family members, like her husband and son, Matthew, who is a police officer in Atwater.
“I honestly have no idea where this comes from,” Vierra said in an interview. “Does it really make sense that I’d go through all of this — running for City Council and all the work —just to get someone a job, to get my husband a job that he doesn’t need? Does that really make any sense to anyone?”
Vierra reiterated that her husband likely would have to take a pay cut to come to Atwater. She also said the idea that her family members would need — or even want — her help in their careers insults her and her family.
“They’re both excellent officers and they don’t need my help in any way,” Vierra said.
Vierra also acknowledged being “aware” of Niederreuther, but said she doesn’t know him well or even know what he looks like. She said the suggestion that he’s somehow given her family money or paid for vacations or trips “just isn’t true.” She said she believed her son may have been part of a group that rented a condominium on a vacation or trip in recent years, but said Niederreuther “never paid for anything or gave any money.”
Niederreuther did not respond to two messages at his office seeking comment.
Councilman Paul Creighton said he too is aware of the questions surrounding Vierra and de Werk and described them as “wild conspiracy theories.”
Vierra said she plans to vote to hire de Werk on Monday because he’s “the best, most qualified, top candidate” for the job.
“He’s been my top pick all along,” Vierra said.
Vierra and Creighton both said de Werk emerged as the “number one candidate” in the headhunters report compiled by Bob Murray & Assoc., a report that cost the city $24,900. The report was ordered after Vierra, Creighton and Councilman Brian Raymond were seen with de Werk at a restaurant in April. The councilmembers denied violating public meeting laws and said no city business was discussed.
Details of the report have not been made public.
Creighton said de Werk “fits all of the qualifications” for the job.
“He has experience as a department head, as a city manager and he’s local,” Creighton said.
Asked why, if de Werk was rated the top candidate in the report, Vierra and Creighton initially voted to give the job to Graeme Mitchell, Vierra and Creighton gave differing answers.
Vierra said she’s understood the mayor and others have expressed concerns over de Werk and said she was looking for ways “to compromise” to move the job search forward. Creighton described Mitchell as his “top pick,” saying, in his own view, Mitchell was “the most creative” and “outside-the-box” candidate in the group of applicants.
Mitchell initially accepted the job last month but stepped down just two weeks later for reasons that remain unclear.
Price confirmed having “reservations” over de Werk and said he planned to speak up at Monday’s meetings. The mayor said he’s been hoping for a candidate from “completely outside” the community with no ties to Atwater politics. Price said because of the controversial meeting between de Werk and the three councilmembers in April, he believes the community would benefit from a candidate with no history in the city.
“I don’t want any kind of candidate who could even appear to be fulfilling some kind of agenda,” Price said. “As a city manager, I have some pretty strong reservations about (de Werk.)”
Price described de Werk’s prior city management experience as “minimal” and said he believes there were stronger applicants who have the necessary experience and don’t have any previous ties to Atwater.
Debate over the potential appointment is scheduled for open session and members of the public are expected to address the topic.
The City Council meets at 5 p.m. Monday for a closed session. Open session of Monday’s meeting begins at 6 p.m. at City Hall in Atwater, 750 Bellevue Road.
Rob Parsons: 209-385-2482