Atwater’s incoming council tried to project an air of positivity this week as members were sworn into office despite reminders from the outgoing mayor that the city is in difficult financial waters.
Mayor Paul Creighton was sworn into office on Monday inside the City Council chambers, as was Councilmembers Brian Raymond and Danny Ambriz. Raymond is in his second term and Ambriz is a newcomer to public office.
Creighton said the city is working with developers who are looking to come to town and others who are selling out housing developments.
“There’s going to be a lot of great things coming to this city,” he said. “I’m very optimistic and positive that with a new team and the new direction we’re going to go (residents) are going to see a lot more things change for the positive.”
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Raymond said he believes the new council along with Councilmember Cindy Vierra could restore civility in Atwater, which has had a long history of fighting among city leaders and political gadflies. Elected officials have described the environment as being toxic.
“Unfortunately in the city of Atwater it’s been the politics of personal destruction, not politics to move the city forward,” Raymond said. “With the help of Paul and Cindy, we’ve been able to brave the storm of politics of personal destruction to put the city first, and I think the residents saw that with the most recent election.”
But, in his parting words, former Mayor Jim Price reminded residents that Atwater is in financial dire straits. He said the police department is operating at a bare-bones staffing level and added that the fire department is using outdated equipment.
“Our finances are (in) horrific shape,” Price said.
The city’s general fund deficit is $1.5 million, he said, and cash reserves are another $2.8 million in debt. He also said that the city has paid $637,000 “and counting” to Churchwell White since March for the city’s legal services.
Atwater’s elected officials have been at odds for years, but the past two have been particularly ugly. Two sides of the council butted heads over decisions around high-paid employees, which led the city to burn through six city managers during that time.
The sides disagreed over putting Police Chief Samuel Joseph on leave in March. He was officially severed from the police department on Nov. 15, just days after the election.
Councilmember James Vineyard’s time on the dais also ended on Monday. He did not seek re-election, citing the nasty nature of politics in Atwater.
Ambriz won the District 3 seat by just 11 votes, according to the Merced County Registrar of Voters Office. “I’ll admit there were times I doubted I’d pull through but we did,” he said.
Creighton was serving as a councilmember before winning the mayor’s office so his former seat is now vacant. The four members of the new council voted to ask for applicants who want to be appointed to the open seat, which comes with a deadline of 5 p.m. Dec. 20.