A divided Atwater City Council appoints de Werk as interim city manager

Art de Werk, a former city manager, police chief and public safety director in Ceres, will be considered formally to fill on an interim six-month basis the position vacated last year by the retirement of City Manager and Police Chief Frank Pietro.
Art de Werk, a former city manager, police chief and public safety director in Ceres, will be considered formally to fill on an interim six-month basis the position vacated last year by the retirement of City Manager and Police Chief Frank Pietro. Modesto Bee file

For the second time in a month, a divided Atwater City Council has chosen a new interim city manager.

Art de Werk, a 63-year-old former police chief and city manager in Ceres, will take over Atwater's top city job Jan. 3, following a 3-2 vote Monday appointing him to the position.

Atwater Mayor Jim Price and Councilman James Vineyard cast the dissenting votes. Councilmembers Cindy Vierra, Paul Creighton and Brian Raymond voted in support of de Werk's interim appointment.

De Werk's appointment was expected but remained hotly debated Monday. Several members of the public expressed concerns with de Werk, including his experience and his relationships with Vierra and Frank Johnson, a former president of the Modesto chapter of the NAACP.

Johnson, who separated from the NAACP and now heads an organization he founded, worked with de Werk a decade ago in connection with a health clinic. Johnson came onto the scene in Atwater politics earlier this year when he accused a candidate competing against de Werk for the city manager job of operating a "secret hotel."

Johnson also has filed numerous complaints against Atwater and its police department.

Rich Howard, a retired Merced County sheriff's deputy, blasted Johnson on Monday night during the council meeting and told city leaders he believed it would be a mistake to hire de Werk, at least in part because of his relationship with Johnson.

De Werk becomes the third interim city manager in Atwater since December of last year, when Frank Pietro retired. The search to replace Pietro has been marred by infighting on the council that has included open suspicion and name calling.

Controversy boiled over in April when de Werk was seen at a restaurant with Vierra, Raymond and Creighton. Those three councilmembers denied violating state open meetings laws and said no city business was discussed.

However, fallout from the meeting caused the city to reboot the process a short time later. The council hired a law firm to come up with a list of candidates for the job. The report cost the city $24,900 and took several months to complete.

Price expressed frustration with the yearlong process. Price said the $24,900 price tag was just what the law firm charged for the actual document, but said if staff time, travel and meal expenses were figured into the total he believed the real cost to the city was much higher.

There's some disagreement among councilmembers regarding what exactly that report said. Vierra and Creighton both told the Sun-Star that de Werk emerged as the top-rated candidate in the report. However, Vineyard on Monday told the public the report didn't rank specific candidates.

The council ran into another false start last month when they hired Graeme Mitchell for the job. However, Mitchell, a longtime university employee with no administrative experience in government, withdrew from the job just two weeks later for reasons that have remained unexplained.

Price and Vineyard said they couldn't support de Werk's appointment.

"We're not accomplishing anything," Vineyard said. "We're just spinning our wheels."

Price said he was frustrated with the process and concerned that, in his view at least, the council appears to have abandoned a plan he believed had been established based on the headhunter's report. Price said the council had a "Plan B" in place in November as a precaution in the event that Mitchell didn't work out.

"When (Mitchell) declined, we were ready to go with Plan B," Price said. "Mr. de Werk was not Plan B."

Price said another candidate was the city's "Plan B," but didn't identify that candidate.

The mayor also said that, from the beginning, he's wanted a candidate from outside the area so there wouldn't even a hint of "any kind of controversy."

He also said the lengthy bitter process has turned city staff "completely upside down" after a year of dealing with uncertainty over the future.

Price also objected to the salary de Werk was given, which started him nearly at the top of the pay scale.

According to a copy of the agreement, de Werk will be paid $13,721.56 per month. The mayor said de Werk was starting out at step five on a six-step pay scale.

For his part, de Werk said he was eager to find ways to work with those who didn't support his appointment, saying he hoped to meet with his critics first.

De Werk also again addressed the concerns raised over his relationship with Johnson. He said he welcomes the questions and hopes to ease those concerns "through my actions" in the coming months. He said he wasn't taking the criticism personally.

"I don't need anybody's help to get a job. Period," he said. "It's just normal public discourse. In my 41 years of law enforcement and firefighting, I've heard a lot worse than this."

De Werk, in an interview outside council chambers following Monday's vote, said he plans to have a series of meetings learning about community concerns and said he'd work to identify the council's top priorities moving forward.

"I want to spend some time picking peoples' brains and working to formulate a list of priorities based on solid information," he said.