A contentious Atwater City Council meeting ended this week with the council agreeing to select a new firm to act as its city attorney, but not before lobbing accusations and butting heads in public.
Councilman James Vineyard initially resisted the proposal to hire Churchwell White, saying the council was not following the normal procedure of requesting proposals from firms before picking one.
The proposal was dated Jan. 12, a full month before Terpstra announced his plans to leave.
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Councilwoman Cindy Vierra said she had asked at least three firms about their fees before putting Churchwell on the agenda for discussion.
“I’m not going outside of my jurisdiction by asking. I’m allowed to ask. That’s what we’re supposed to do,” she said. “We were having numerous complaints from the city about the charges we’ve been paying for attorney services.”
Terpstra said he spoke with the council in January about his firm’s fees, saying the expenses rose because of at least 39 public records requests, calls for internal investigations and a long city manager search.
The city attorney said it is “standard” for the council to discuss multiple applicants before selecting one.
Vineyard said Vierra’s proposal did not follow procedure. “Making a request of somebody is fine, but putting it on (the agenda) as the only recommendation without conversing without the rest of the City Council is a problem,” he said.
Vierra said she has a hard time talking to Vineyard, accusing him of not returning her phone calls and texts messages, an accusation Vineyard denied before the rest of the council cut off the public argument.
“We’re not going to go through a tit for tat up here,” Mayor Jim Price said. “This is embarrassing enough.”
The council has been firmly split 3-2 on decisions related to the city manager position and other votes in the past year. Residents have called for greater decorum from the council.
But, the tension spilled into the audience at one point with two men arguing near the podium reserved for residents who want to comment publicly. The police chief stood nearby but the cooler heads prevailed.
Price went on to say Atwater has struggled with keeping “regular order” for a “very long time.” He, too, said the council should be discussing options before proposing a specific firm for the attorney’s office.
The mayor went on to say that Vierra and the interim city manager met separately with Terpstra to strike a separate deal. That’s when Vierra interjected.
“You will not sit here and lie about me in public,” she said to Price.
Councilman Paul Creighton also expressed frustration with Price and Vineyard.
“Just because you’re in the minority, it doesn’t make it OK every time you guys don’t get your way to rally this whole thing and turn it into some conspiracy,” he said.
The discussion was put on hold until the end of the meeting. After Terpstra recommended the council hire Churchwell, the council voted 5-0 to hire the Sacramento firm.
The agreement will pay the firm $155 an hour plus travel time and mileage expenses.