Hundreds of thousands in recent attorney’s fees are hot topic in Atwater mayor race

Atwater Mayor Jim Price speaks at a debate on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018, at the Atwater Community Center. He is running for re-election.
Atwater Mayor Jim Price speaks at a debate on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018, at the Atwater Community Center. He is running for re-election.

Atwater’s mayor and a councilmember sparred during a mayoral debate this week on city attorney fees and how to best sell the city to investors, among other topics.

Mayor Jim Price said the firm that serves as city attorney, Churchwell White, has charged the city “$390,000 and rising” since it was hired in March. He noted the firm was hired by the council without asking for bids from around the area.

“If we’re going to see a return on that, when are we going to see it?” Price said. “We are spending money we don’t have.”

Price, a first-term mayor elected in 2014, is being challenged for re-election by Councilmember Paul Creighton. The two city leaders, who frequently have been at odds during the last two years, squared off Tuesday morning in a debate before the Merced County Association of Realtors.

Price noted the council was asked to consider hiring its own attorney, rather than a firm, at a recent meeting. The idea was unsuccessful, only gaining the support of Price and Councilmember James Vineyard.

“In a business, if your expenditures are outweighing your revenue generation, then it’s time to go out and find ways to bring that in line,” he said.

Atwater has been bitterly divided for the past two years with the council not agreeing on a city manager since Frank Pietro left at the end of 2016. The city last month hired its sixth top administrator in two years. Also in that time, Police Chief Samuel Joseph was placed on paid leave, where he remains.

Creighton told the realtors the city’s attorney bills are high for a good reason.

“The city of Atwater has been sitting basically idle, just getting by, for the last 10 years,” he said.

Elected in 2016, Creighton said he and other city leaders decided to make moves to improve the city. He pointed to efforts to generate real estate deals as well as the new marijuana industry.

“We spent a lot of money on that. We’ve also been addressing our financial issues,” he said.

The city has struggled with its finances with a $2.5 million general fund debt and millions more in unfunded liabilities. Creighton said attorney fees related to marijuana and other projects are reimbursable during development.

Merced Mayor Mike Murphy has touted Merced as a “City on the Rise,” so the candidates were asked about their plans to market Atwater, the third largest city in Merced County.

Creighton said he’ll rely on real estate agents and residents to sell Atwater in their interactions with developers and potential new residents.

“If you guys are all selling Atwater and telling them how great it is and it’s a good deal to be here, we’re going to grow,” he said.

Noting that Castle Airport is owned and run by Merced County, Creighton said there is potential for development there to spill over into Atwater.

A roughly 310-acre space at Castle is now being called the California AutoTech Testing and Development Center, where companies test autonomous cars. County officials say interest in it is growing.

Attracting business in Atwater is “a hard nut to crack” because of the proximity of large chains in Turlock, according to Price. Corporations hesitate to build in Atwater when they can see that residents already shop at another location in the region, he said.

Price pledged, if re-elected, to go to an international retail convention in Las Vegas on his own dime. He said Los Banos has had success attracting businesses from there in recent years.

“That’s where I’m headed at my own expense next year if re-elected,” he said.