Atwater mayor's accidental text at center of city manager's departure, sources say

Mayor Jim Price speaks during an Atwater City Council meeting on Monday, Feb. 12, 2018.
Mayor Jim Price speaks during an Atwater City Council meeting on Monday, Feb. 12, 2018.

The interim Atwater city manager who quit this week had filed a "hostile work environment" claim with the city's human resources department about two weeks before leaving, according to an agreement that settled his claim.

The departure of Art de Werk, who filed the hostile work environment claim on March 19 according to the settlement agreement, is the latest in a series of upheavals for the struggling city. Relations between elected officials and top administrators have been rocky for at least the last two years.

According to two sources who spoke to the Sun-Star on condition of anonymity, de Werk's grievance and departure came after Mayor Jim Price sent a text message to the then-city manager that contained profanity.

In the text, which apparently was meant for someone else, Price criticized de Werk's handling of a trash-disposal event and said de Werk couldn't "admit he f---ed up," both sources confirmed.

Asked about the text message on Friday, Price said he would not comment. He neither confirmed nor denied sending the message. De Werk said the settlement he reached with Atwater prevents him from commenting on the matter.

In the settlement, de Werk agreed to drop his hostile work environment claim in exchange for being paid his salary through April, about $13,721. He resigned April 3.

De Werk also agreed not to sue the city. As is routine for such agreements, neither de Werk nor the city council members can say anything disparaging about each other, the agreement says.

Questions around de Werk's departure from Ceres in 2014 put stresses on his relationship with Price. De Werk left the Stanislaus County city following a two-month medical leave.

The Ceres City Council relieved de Werk of his duties, citing his medical issues, and he was required not to make any “disparaging remarks” about the city or enter its private facilities without permission, the Modesto Bee reported.

In an attempt to clear up those questions about his departure, and after prodding from Price, de Werk asked for a deeper-than-normal dive into his background check – even though he was already on Atwater's payroll. But after he resigned, the investigation was suspended and no report is expected to be made public, according to City Attorney Douglas White.

The cost of the background check and whether it turned anything up isn't available, city staffers have said. City officials declined to release a copy of de Werk's complaint. In an email to the Sun-Star, Jeanna Del Real, the city's human resources director, said the documents were "related to an on-going personnel investigation and are not subject to (the) Public Records Act disclosure."

Atwater has burned through four city managers and is onto its fifth since December 2016. Lori Waterman, a 12-year veteran employee of the city's government, was appointed the day de Werk resigned.

City leaders and their supporters have had a history of hostility toward top administrators.

Before de Werk, Graeme Mitchell quit two weeks after he was hired on a 3-2 vote. Price and Councilmember James Vineyard cast the dissenting votes, saying that Mitchell was not qualified. Mitchell had worked as an administrator at universities, but had never worked for a city.

In his Nov. 27 resignation letter, Mitchell wrote that the three councilmembers who voted for him "reached out" with their support. He never heard from Price or Vineyard, he said.

"This harkens to their lack of support and to a potential toxic situation that awaits an opportunity to manifest detrimentally to the city manager and for the city itself," the letter says.

He went on to say "unfounded and inappropriate" attacks on his character were likely "harbingers of desperate acts of displeased individuals and hint of more such actions to follow."

Mitchell predicted the city would go through two or three more city managers as the city struggles to plug deep budget holes. He could not be reached for comment Friday.

With a deficit of about $2.5 million in the general fund and unfunded liabilities of about $7.75 million to employee pensions, city leaders have begun talks to try to cut more than $1 million in spending in the current budget year. The city also has borrowed about $2 million from its own sewer fund, which must be paid back, to pay for unfunded and ongoing city services.

"The city’s current state of financial malaise and cultural discord will require a unified front," Mitchell wrote, "from all council members and the city manager and city staff to pull through and make any positive strides forward."