The Atwater City Council is not on the path to a formal corrective action following the news that a majority of City Council members met at a restaurant with a city manager candidate, the city attorney said.
Councilman Brian Raymond and Councilwoman Cindy Vierra have insisted the meeting on April 24 involving them and Councilman Paul Creighton and city manager candidate Art de Werk was a social gathering at Almond Tree Restaurant and Lounge and that they did not discuss city business, which would have been illegal.
A formal corrective action would have to come from the Merced County District Attorney, a citizen complaint or some other source from outside of the city, according to Tom Terpstra, the city attorney.
“Under the facts that I have now, we don’t have anything to cure and correct,” he said. “But, what I will say in almost 30 years of doing this now, every one of these types of situations ... It’s a teachable moment about avoiding the appearance of impropriety.”
Under the facts that I have now, we don’t have anything to cure and correct.
Tom Terpstra, Atwater city attorney
The gathering of three of the city’s five council members raised questions among some community members, including several who spoke about a potential violation of the Brown Act during a special meeting of the council. Raymond and Councilman James Vineyard confirmed a similar social gathering happened earlier this year.
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.
Vierra, in an interview Wednesday, said Almond Tree gathering has been blown out of proportion.
“We have the right to go out and congregate with each other if we’re not talking about city business,” she said. “I know the rules. I followed the rules. I have done nothing wrong.”
It was pretty boring stuff.
Paul Creighton, an Atwater councilman
Vierra said she and Creighton planned to meet at Almond Tree to wind down after a council meeting. She said she did not know Raymond and de Werk were there.
She said she greeted de Werk briefly before speaking with Creighton. They discussed Creighton’s recent trip to Ireland, and her recent purchase of a motor home, she said.
Creighton confirmed the conversation to the Sun-Star, saying “It was pretty boring stuff.” Atwater is a small town, and it’s not unusual to see another member of the council as a store or cafe, he said.
Raymond said he had a similar meeting weeks earlier with Mayor Jim Price, Vineyard and interim City Manager Scott McBride, who also has been a candidate for the full-time position. Raymond said that, too, was a social gathering in which they did not discuss city affairs.
I definitely will go out of my way to avoid any perceived issues.
Councilman Brian Raymond
Vineyard confirmed that gathering took place at Applebee’s in Atwater, saying it was several weeks ago. He said he did not know Raymond and McBride would be there.
Mayor Jim Price did not return a request for comment.
Vierra pointed to that meeting. “If it’s believable that they can get together as friends and have a conversation, then it should be believable for us,” she said.
Raymond said he’d think twice about another gathering outside of City Hall. “I definitely will go out of my way to avoid any perceived issues,” he said.