The Atwater City Council attempted to show a more united front on Monday during the first public meeting that involved the embattled new interim city manager.
The meeting featured a number of routine decisions from the governing body, whose members pledged to work together with Art de Werk, who had been the interim administrator for about three days.
Mayor Jim Price said he recently spoke with de Werk for about an hour, discussing economic development and other city business.
“I will be working with Mr. de Werk,” Price said on Monday. “I’m not going to be an impediment to this city.”
De Werk has been a controversial hire, with some members of the council questioning his experience and residents and some on the council including the mayor calling for a deeper dive into the background of the former Ceres police chief.
The council voted 3-2 to narrowly hire him in December.
Price and Councilman James Vineyard were the two “no” votes against de Werk. But, on Monday, they each spoke of working with de Werk to improve Atwater.
De Werk has six-month contract as the interim city manager. He told the Sun-Star that he’ll use that time to try to get the city moving in the right direction and will make up his mind on whether he’ll try for the job permanently.
He said the “passion” he sees in Atwater’s elected officials, city employees and residents all play into why he’s drawn to the town despite its challenges. He noted the split City Council, the city’s debt and understaffed city services as some of those challenges.
“The City Council is made up of people who care about this place,” he said, adding he’s “absolutely impressed” with the city staff.
De Werk has been retired for more than three years, he noted, saying there will be a transition period for him. “I don’t have to work. I fully retired. I’m not broke,” he said. “So, I don’t want to stay in a job where I’m not welcomed or wanted.
“But, if I feel like I’m really contributing and that I’m making a difference, then I’d like to stay a long time,” he said.
Some detractors of de Werk have questioned his departure from his last job.
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 Tom Niederreuther, who was a reserve police officer for a short time, and also worked with Frank 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.
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.
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.
Councilman Paul Creighton said he hoped the council would be able to move forward past the in-fighting that’s been seen in the past year.
“It’s important that we put it all behind us,” he said.