Released texts and email are ‘evidence of corruption’ in Atwater, leaders say

The Atwater seal as it appeared Thursday, Dec. 15, 2016, on a television inside the council chambers.
The Atwater seal as it appeared Thursday, Dec. 15, 2016, on a television inside the council chambers.

The city of Atwater released several text messages and emails on Friday that allegedly show the mayor and mayor pro tem openly violating rules and inappropriately sharing confidential information, according to elected officials.

In text messages from Dec. 12, Mayor Pro Tem James Vineyard discusses closed session matters with Police Chief Samuel Joseph, a violation of the Brown Act, according to members of the City Council. It is unclear who they are discussing, but it was someone in closed session.

“Yes she said it in front of Stacey but be careful it was in closed door,” Vineyard wrote in a text. “Of course you could say you heard it from someone in the public. Lol.”

Closed session meetings are typically used to discuss personnel matters and ongoing or potential litigation, and are confidential.

In another string of text messages from Dec. 9, Mayor Jim Price shared what is called a “red line contract,” an early draft of a contract that hasn’t even been presented to the members of the council. The red line contract, which was to be finalized before offered to former interim City Manager Art de Werk, was sent to Joseph and several members of the community as well as a Merced Sun-Star editor.

De Werk served an embattled three months before filing a “hostile work environment” claims. He settled with the city for a month’s pay, about $13,721, and dropped the claims.

Atwater City Attorney Doug White said the emails and texts were released at the urging of the City Council. Council members Paul Creighton, Brian Raymond and Cindy Vierra voted to release the documents, while Price and Vineyard abstained from voting, White said.

Neither Price nor Vineyard returned requests for comment on Friday.

Among the members of the community who received the draft of the contract were Linda Dash, who serves on a city commission, and Eric Lee, who used to serve on a city commission. Both are outspoken opponents of the three council members who supported the release of the documents.

Attempts to reach Dash were unsuccessful on Friday. Reached by phone on Friday, Lee said he doesn’t remember ever receiving the contract, noting he gets hundreds of emails a week. Lee said he has never spoken about closed session items with any of the elected officials.

Vierra said those involved in the text threads have been some of the most outspoken detractors of the three council members following the appearance of Brown Act violations in April, when the three elected officials were seen at Almond Tree Restaurant and Lounge in Atwater.

The emails and texts are proof of violations by Price, Vineyard and the others, Vierra said. “This is pure, solid hand-held evidence of corruption,” she said. “How can you look at what Jim Price has done, even if you like him, and (have) any faith that he can continue to stand at the helm of our city?”

Vierra said the documents were “absolutely disturbing” and painted a picture of a concerted effort to torpedo de Werk before he ever started. She also took exception to a text from Joseph that simply said, “I hate Cindy.”

“I found it very disturbing that the chief said he hated me,” she said. “I’ve never been anything but civil and kind to him.”

Joseph’s attorney, Michael Rains, said the text thread was a conversation city leaders should have been having about whether de Werk was right for the job.

“There probably are Brown Act violations,” he said. “More than that, one has to wonder why Doug White releases only a few messages with Sam, Mayor Price and Vice Mayor Vineyard where they’re raising concerns about the character and the integrity of Art de Werk. ... Why doesn’t he put out in the public all the dirty stuff between the majority council members and all their dirty emails back and forth on the games they’re playing with Sam Joseph?”

Rains said he doesn’t have any emails from the majority council, but he suspects they exist.

He went on to say Joseph has been victimized by the council and has good reason to hate Vierra. “Maybe she never expressed a nasty word to him but she’s been trying to get him fired,” he said.

Atwater has had a unstable couple of years, going through six different city managers. Raymond said he hopes the emails and texts bring some of the reasons to light.

“Atwater has a poison working relationship among the leaders,” he said. “(The documents) do shed light on how our council operates.”

He called the sharing of information by Price and Vineyard “troubling.” “I trust the people we represent,” he said. “They deserve to know what’s going on to make up their own minds on this.”

Creighton called Price, Vineyard and the others’ acts “blatant violations” of the Brown Act. “It’s a concerted effort by those involved to undermine the day to day operations of the city of Atwater,” he said. “It’s important for the citizens of Atwater to be aware of what their government is up to.”