Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke spoke publicly at an Atwater City Council meeting Monday in an attempt to further shoot down misinformation about the police department there.
About a month ago, Warnke and Atwater interim Police Chief Drew Bessinger took to Facebook to try dispel rumors that the Sheriff’s Office was planning to absorb Atwater police’s jurisdiction into its coverage area. The sheriff went a step further this week when he spoke to the council and residents in person.
“I’m getting a lot folks telling me, telling folks, that there’s a letter of intent that has been signed by myself and some council members for me to take over the police department. That is utterly false,” Warnke said. “That never happened. Ever.”
Warnke went on to note that Mayor Pro Tem James Vineyard’s daughter, Daniella Johnson, had perpetuated the rumor when she spoke publicly at the council’s Sept. 24 meeting.
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“I’d like to know where this information or stuff is coming from, because it never happened,” Warnke said while addressing Vineyard, who was seated at the dais.
Uncorroborated rumors and misinformation are common in Atwater, where two camps of political gadflies trade barbs over which side is conspiring to control the city. The supporters tend to back either Vineyard and Mayor Jim Price on one side, while others back council members Cindy Vierra, Brian Raymond and Paul Creighton on the other.
In the case of dire circumstances, the Sheriff’s Office could help Atwater with patrols but there are no plans to do so, Warnke said. “At no point did they say, ‘Take over the police department,’ “ he said. “I don’t want your police department.”
The city has been dealing with its debt and has worked with the state’s Joint Legislative Audit Committee to address concerns related to Atwater’s financial solvency. Some have worried out loud that the state could take over day-to-day workings, or that the Sheriff’s Office would control law enforcement there. Leaders have repeatedly said they have no desire to do so.
Vineyard defended his daughter’s actions, saying he raised her to ask questions. “We didn’t raise our daughters to ask for permission to speak when they have a question,” he said. “We raised them to go ask.”
Vineyard said the rumor had been passed around the community and on social media. No one has shown real evidence of a letter of intent.
“So the sheriff is a little perturbed because his name got thrown out there. I’m sorry, sheriff,” he continued. “My daughter has a right to ask questions, because she’s a citizen.”
In other council news, the members voted 3-2 to remove the cap on the number of marijuana dispensaries allowed in town. Vineyard and Price cast the “no” votes.
Originally capped at two with a vote in May, the city will allow an unlimited number of dispensaries on a case-by-case basis decided by the council.