Atwater picks another interim police chief, a councilmember from out of town

Drew Bessinger
Drew Bessinger

Atwater will move on to another interim police chief next month with the hiring of a retired officer, city staffers announced Wednesday.

Drew Bessinger, who has been an interim in Fowler, Parlier and Kingsburg, takes over as interim chief in Atwater on July 2, according to a news release. He served 22 years as an officer in Clovis, and is on the city council in that Fresno County town.

Interim Chief Armando Echevarria, who has held that position since Jan. 22, will return to his sergeant position, according to officials.

Councilmember Paul Creighton said the council was looking for an outside opinion for the department, which has seen a tumultuous six months since Chief Samuel Joseph was placed on leave. Joseph remains on leave with pay.

The day after Joseph was placed on leave, the Atwater Police Officers Association took a vote of "no confidence" in the chief. The union has not released exactly how many officers were at the meaning or the specific number of officers supported the vote.

"(Bessinger's) going to come in and give some additional stability," Creighton said Wednesday. "He's going to come in with a different perspective from outside the department. What we want as a council is unity within the department."

The department could benefit from an outsider who could rebuild the officers as a team after "some in-fighting," he said.

Bessinger, an Army veteran, has a bachelor's degree from Fresno State, according to the news release. He'll be paid at a rate of $139,857 annually without benefits, according to the release.

His experience and background make him a good fit for Atwater, according to Interim City Manager Lori Waterman. "We felt at this time our department needed a fresh, objective look to move forward in a positive direction," she said.

Stability is particularly important in Atwater, which may face an audit from the state in August.

The city has seen five different city managers since Dec. 2016, and the council has often been split on personnel matters and budget-related decisions.

The most recently departed city manager, Art de Werk, asked for a look into his own background by Los Alamitos-based Freeman Investigative Group. After prodding from Mayor Jim Price, de Werk called for the inquiry to try and settle questions about his background and time in Ceres, where he worked until 2014.

The investigation was apparently ongoing for months until de Werk submitted a “hostile work environment” claim on March 19 following a text message containing profanity that the city manager received from Price, according to sources. He resigned from the city and agreed to drop his claim, according to the settlement.