Atwater City Council waived the educational requirements this week needed to be police chief to allow the interim top officer to remain on the job.
While city leaders brushed off any concerns over the decision made Monday, its another example related to the Atwater Police Department of a decision being made by ex-City Manager Art de Werk and then reinforced after the fact.
The council voted 4-1 to waive the city’s requirement for a police chief to have a bachelor’s degree. Interim Chief Armando Echevarria, who has worked in Atwater since 1999, said he has a high school diploma. Mayor Price cast the “no” vote.
De Werk, who resigned last week, appointed Echevarria to the interim chief position on Jan. 22, the same day he announced that Chief Samuel Joseph was placed on leave. It remains unclear why Joseph was removed from the commanding position, and a number of Atwater residents have publicly raised questions over why he hasn’t been reinstated.
Joseph remains on paid leave.
The day after Joseph was placed on leave, the Atwater Police Officers Association took a vote of "no confidence" in the chief. The union has not released exactly how many officers were at the meaning or the specific number of officers supported the vote.
Atwater requires a police chief to have a bachelor's degree, according to City Attorney Douglas White. He said waving the requirement is not unusual.
"It's a very common practice with interim positions," White said on Monday.
The attorney also reiterated the previous city attorney’s argument that Councilmember Cindy Vierra can vote on police matters though her son, Matt Vierra, is an officer. There is no conflict of interest, he said, adding Vierra has a letter of approval from the Fair Political Practices Commission.
Vierra said she voted to waive the requirement because the department has seen enough change in recent months, “especially since it would only be a temporary change.” Echavarria is “extremely qualified” and has years of experience in Atwater, she said via text message.
Echevarria said Monday he preferred not to argue with his detractors about his level of education. “I think there’s more important issues that need to be resolved,” he said. “We really need to get past that and start focusing on the bigger picture, and that’s the solvency of the city.”
The cash-strapped city is looking at cutting more than $1 million from its $42.4 million budget in a city that already mostly shuts down on Fridays and is considered to be understaffed. Leaders are facing a deficit of more than $2.5 million, and more than $7.75 million in unfunded liabilities.
The city has seen five different city managers since Dec. 2016, and the council has often been split on personnel matters and budget-related decisions.
The most recently departed city manager, de Werk, asked for a look into his own background by Los Alamitos-based Freeman Investigative Group. After prodding from Price, de Werk called for the inquiry to try and settle questions about his background and time in Ceres, where he worked until 2014.
The investigation was apparently ongoing for months until de Werk submitted a “hostile work environment” claim on March 19 following a text message containing profanity that the city manager received from Price, according to sources. He resigned from the city and agreed to drop his claim, according to the settlement.
The day he resigned, the investigation ended. No report or draft of a report will be made available, according to a statement from Fredrick Freeman, the owner of the company that specializes in background checks.
City officials have yet to release the cost of the aborted background report.