A social media post featuring a photograph of three Atwater City Council members and a local political operative was described as a joke, but not everyone is laughing.
Mike Lynch, the campaign manager for Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, posted a photo around 5 p.m. Wednesday of himself posing with Councilwoman Cindy Vierra and Councilmen Paul Creighton and Brian Raymond.
The text above the photo reads: “Three Atwater council people in secret meeting with political consultant!”
The post may have been written off as a harmless joke were it not for the council’s history of being accused of violating open government laws. The same three members of the council were accused of meeting with a city manager candidate in April.
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That candidate, Art de Werk, will take over as interim city manager in January.
Lynch told the Sun-Star the photo was taken at the annual holiday party at Gray’s Merced office, where he estimates about 100 people attended. He said those council members were the only three at the party at the time of the photo.
“There was no intent for it to be anything other than a joke,” he said Thursday.
For a City Council already bitterly divided, especially over the city manager search and the controversial meeting in April, the caption on the photograph may only have poured more fuel on a yearlong fire that has included allegations of name-calling, bullying and secret agendas.
The council has been staunchly divided on votes related to the city manager search over the past year with those three members of council voting differently than the other two, Mayor Jim Price and Councilman James Vineyard.
Raymond, Vierra and Creighton have admitted to being at an Atwater restaurant with de Werk in April, but insist the meeting was a social gathering where they did not discuss city business, which would have been illegal.
Open government law, typically called the Brown Act, ensures that matters of public interest are conducted openly and prohibits “any gathering of a quorum of a legislative body to discuss or transact business under the body’s jurisdiction.” Violations of the act are misdemeanors.
While those council members denied violating the Brown Act in April, the controversy caused the city to start over in its search for a new city manager. The rebooted search included hiring a private consultant to come up with a list of candidates. The process took another six months to complete and cost the city at least $20,000, though some on the council have said the “real cost” of the second search was much higher once staff time and travel expenses were factored in.
Vierra said the Facebook photo was nothing more than “some friends together having a good time,” and dismissed the idea the photo could be divisive.
“I don’t see anything negative about it at all,” she wrote in a text message.
Price said the gathering this week may have been harmless but said “it doesn’t look good.” He said the Facebook post isn’t helping quash murmurs from community members who already were upset over the private meeting in April and its expensive fallout.
“I think it was done in poor judgment. Let’s just say that,” Price said.
Cities are known to send out meeting notices to avoid the appearance of impropriety when a quorum a City Council might gather. Earlier in the week, for example, the city of Merced sent out a notice because a quorum of the council was likely to gather in a public rose garden to check out its maintenance.
Lynch stressed he is not working with any member of the City Council, and brushed off criticism over the Facebook post.
“It’s the holiday season,” he said, “and I would suggest everyone needs to lighten up.”