Central Valley

Turlock hires Modesto's top cop

TURLOCK — The City Council named Modesto Police Chief Roy Wasden as its city manager Tuesday night.

Wasden, 55, said he plans to begin his duties by July 1.

This is Wasden's first job as a city manager — charged with overseeing everything from zoning and trash collection to street repair and budgeting — after nine years as police chief.

"I have a lot to learn," Wasden said in an interview after being named city manager. "I'll just be learning a ton."

Mayor John Lazar and Councilmen Ted Howze and Kurt Spycher voted to appoint Wasden in closed session. Councilwoman Mary Jackson voted not to appoint Wasden and declined to comment.

Amy Bublak, a Modesto police officer, voluntarily abstained from voting to avoid "an appearance of impropriety," City Attorney Phaedra Norton said.

Modesto City Manager Greg Nyhoff said he would promote Assistant Chief Mike Harden as acting police chief to replace Wasden. Nyhoff said the city would conduct a search within the next six months to find Wasden's permanent successor.

Wasden's contract has not been settled, but his base pay will fall between $167,256 and $203,316, Norton said. Former City Manager Tim Kerr earned $184,000 in base salary last year. The council fired him in January. Norton said the council plans to vote on Wasden's salary and contract May 26.

Wasden said he had contacts in Turlock who asked if he was interested in applying for the job, among them council members. He did not elaborate but said Bublak was not one of them.

Job one: Council diplomacy

As Turlock's new chief executive, Wasden will face the task of reuniting a divisive council. Among some of the more contentious issues to come are whether to fund the rebuilding of the historic Carnegie Arts Center and rewriting the city's general plan.

Lazar said Wasden has a "knack for being a diplomat."

"At this point in our history, he's the right person for the job," Lazar said. "We need a healer."

Howze and Spycher echoed Lazar, saying Wasden's character stood out.

"It's what the city needs at this time," Howze said.

Wasden said he hoped to foster productive discussions among council members.

"I don't think there's anything wrong with a difference of opinion," Wasden said. "I think good government requires it."

Wasden said he wants to continue the "great growth, wise growth" in Turlock and foster the partnership with California State University, Stanislaus. He said learning the intricacies of city planning will be his greatest challenge.

"As a police chief, I've seen what happens with bad planning," Wasden said.

Wasden came to Modesto in summer 2000, after a 24-year career in Salt Lake City, where he rose to assistant police chief.

Just a month after Wasden took over as Modesto's chief, he found himself defending the department after a SWAT team officer accidentally shot and killed an 11-year-old boy during a drug raid.

Wasden ran the department in the midst of Modesto's most recognized criminal case — the search for Laci Peterson, who last was seen Christmas Eve 2002. That investigation led to the prosecution of Scott Peterson, who was given a death sentence in March 2005 for murdering his pregnant wife.

Modesto Mayor Jim Ridenour praised Wasden for working well with the public. He said Wasden made a quick impact on the city when he was hired, improving relations between the Police Department and the community and by boosting morale among officers.

People skills praised

"Roy came along and he changed the attitude of the police officers and he changed the attitude of the city," Ridenour said.

Modesto City Councilman Will O'Bryant worked closely with Wasden on a committee that handles city public safety. The councilman said Wasden brought forward good ideas over time. He also said Wasden did well to build relationships with community groups.

"He was an excellent people person as far as neighborhood associations, talking to members of the community or anybody who had a problem," O'Bryant said. "He devoted a lot of energy to keeping people happy. I certainly have a lot of respect for the man."

But O'Bryant said he was "taken aback" because he first heard about Wasden's application for the Turlock job after The Bee spotted him at interviews two weeks ago. "I'm a little saddened that there wasn't more communication," O'Bryant said.

Wasden said he plans to continue living in Modesto and expects the Turlock job to be his last until he retires in five years.

The search for a new Turlock city manager began in January after a council majority voted to fire Kerr, who had been in the job three years. Council members Howze, Bublak and Spycher voted Kerr out.

The city paid more than $180,000 in severance to Kerr, the equivalent of nine months of pay, unused sick leave, vacation, holidays and management leave.

Police Chief Gary Hampton took Kerr's position in the interim.

More than 50 people applied for the city manager position, and the field was whittled to three by May 1.

Nyhoff, who was named Modesto's city manager a year ago, said he was impressed by Wasden's involvement with the community, exemplified by a strong showing of neighborhood watch groups on National Night Out. Nyhoff said he was pleased by the stamp of professionalism Wasden's department obtained through the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, which evaluates law enforcement standards and policies.

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton contributed to this report.

Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at mbalassone@modbee.com or 578-2337.

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