The allegations of wrongdoing by Atwater’s mayor and a councilmember are expected to be sent to the Merced County District Attorney’s Office and the Grand Jury as soon as Wednesday, according to the city attorney.
Mayor Jim Price and Mayor Pro tem James Vineyard openly inappropriately shared confidential information in text messages and emails shared with Police Chief Samuel Joseph and others, according to city leaders.
Those violations, if true, could carry misdemeanor charges. Neither Price nor Vineyard has spoken publicly about the messages and both men have not responded to requests for comment.
Councilmember Cindy Vierra said it was her idea to forward the allegations and evidence to the Grand Jury and District Attorney’s Office.
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“When you look at the information that’s been leaked, we’re looking at a drop in what I think has been an ocean of criminal behavior on the side of the mayor and the mayor pro tem,” she said on Monday. “If the district attorney looks at it and feels like there’s a crime, absolutely (they should be charged).”
The texts and emails were made public on Sept. 28 following a vote by Vierra and councilmembers Paul Creighton and Brian Raymond.
The messages all circle around a time in December when the City Council was discussing whether to hire Art de Werk, who was eventually hired but stayed on for just about three months before leaving the city. De Werk cut ties with the city after receiving a profanity-laced text from Price, according to an agreement that settled his “hostile work environment” claim.
In one thread of the messages in question, Price shared an early draft of de Werk’s contract before the councilmembers had even seen it. The contract went to Joseph, a Merced Sun-Star editor and some Atwater residents, according to the released messages.
In another text, Vineyard relays closed session information to Joseph and tells the chief to lie about where he got it, followed by: “lol.”
“If you have to hide something and you feel guilty about it, it’s wrong,” Vierra said. “If he didn’t absolutely know better, why did he hide it?”
Vierra, Raymond and Creighton were accused of Brown Act violations in April of last year, when the three elected officials were seen at Almond Tree Restaurant and Lounge in Atwater. All three denied discussing council business. The difference with these new allegations is that there is hard proof of violations, according to Vierra.
The city council can request prosecutors and the Grand Jury to review the issue but has no control over the outcome of those investigations, City Attorney Doug White noted.
The Merced County District Attorney’s office had not received the text messages as of Tuesday but plans to review them when they come in, according to Rob Carroll, the chief deputy district attorney.
Price is running for re-election. Citing the nasty environment in Atwater government, Vineyard has said he isn’t running for re-election.
The incident, if submitted to the DA’s Office, would be the second time this year Price’s actions have come under scrutiny by the District Attorney’s Office. Though he wasn’t acting in his duties as the mayor at the time, Price was cited for firing his .22-caliber rifle from the cab of his truck at ground squirrels at Castle Airport on Jan. 11, according to the Merced County Sheriff’s Office.
About a month later, the DA’s office said it didn’t have enough evidence to charge Price with a crime. Price’s concealed-carry permit was revoked as a result of the incident, officials confirmed.