Three Atwater City Council members and a candidate for city manager met at an Atwater restaurant this week after a council meeting, council members confirmed Thursday, raising questions about procedure.
Councilman Brian Raymond and Councilwoman Cindy Vierra insist the meeting was a social gathering on Monday at Almond Tree Restaurant and Lounge in Atwater and that they did not discuss city business, which would have been illegal.
The gathering of three of the city’s five council members raised questions among some community members, including several who called the Sun-Star to ask about a potential violation of the Brown Act.
The 1953 Ralph M. 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.
I’m very careful and very knowledgeable about the Brown Act. There has been no violation.
Councilwoman Cindy Vierra
Raymond said he routinely dines at the restaurant with Councilman Paul Creighton following council meetings. He said it’s a chance to be in public and speak with constituents.
He stressed the elected officials did not discuss public business, so they were not in violation of the Brown Act. He noted they were meeting in public and not secretly.
“If I was going to violate the Brown Act, the last thing we would do is go to a restaurant right next to a nightclub,” he said.
He said he understands how the perception could “be an issue.”
City manager candidate Art de Werk was also at the restaurant, Raymond confirmed, saying the candidate had toured the city earlier in the day.
De Werk is one of two applicants interviewed for the administrator job. The other is interim City Manager Scott McBride, who has been serving in the office since the first of the year. The council unanimously appointed McBride, who was Atwater’s community development director, as interim city manager in December.
There’s two parts to it. Do you have the numbers there to constitute a potential Brown Act violation, and then, secondly, are you there discussing public business?
Larry Morse II, Merced County district attorney
Creighton did not return calls for comment. Vierra said she was at the gathering, but said it was social.
“I’m very careful and very knowledgeable about the Brown Act,” she said in a text message. “There has been no violation.”
Atwater City Attorney Tom Terpstra told the Sun-Star on Monday he was not aware of any Brown Act violations. McBride declined to comment on Tuesday, and Mayor Jim Price did not return a request for comment.
Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II said he was not aware of any investigations into Atwater City Council. Speaking generally, and not about Atwater, he said he can’t think of a single Brown Act violation that’s been prosecuted in the past decade.
“There’s two parts to it. Do you have the numbers there to constitute a potential Brown Act violation, and then, secondly, are you there discussing public business?” he said.