If Atwater was a horse, we’d have to show mercy and put it out of its misery. But in Atwater, misery is in far greater supply than mercy.
There’s the $2.3 million general-fund deficit; staffing liabilities of $7.75 million; another $21 million in pension liabilities; a revolving door of disillusioned staff.
But the real problem is the city council. On nearly every important issue, the council is split with Mayor Jim Price and councilman James Vineyard on one side and councilmembers Cindy Vierra, Brian Raymond and Paul Creighton on the other.
Split is too mild a term. This is a chasm; the Mariana Trench of discord.
There’s bickering, name-calling and threats. Look at Atwater’s never-ending search for a city manager. The city is on its fourth since Jan. 1, 2017, if you count Graeme Mitchell. He actually never got started; Price disparaged him from the dais and Mitchell “quit” before he was scheduled to officially start.
Scott McBride refused to continue beyond his contract as interim city manager due to the multitude of “distractions” he was forced to endure. He moved to Merced, where his new boss lauded him as a “heavy hitter.”
That was nothing compared to what Art de Werk encountered. The former Ceres city manager and police chief knew he would be working with a fractured city council, but took a deep breath and signed on anyway.
In most cases, new city managers are hired by unanimous vote, if only for appearances. For de Werk, it was 3-2 along the usual fault line. Yet, in his first few weeks, de Werk developed and presented a 26-page outline for clawing the city back from the brink of insolvency. He identified two staff members he believed deserved promotion, creating a “bench” of possible successors – which turned out to be prescient. But he also conducted an audit of police functions, and put the newly appointed police chief on administrative leave – a move that infuriated or frightened some in the city.
In the absence of specifics for de Werk’s action, the vacuum has been filled with accusations, conspiracy theories and personal attacks.
The city council must hope Lori Waterman – whom de Werk promoted to deputy city manager on March 26 – turns out to be as good as her former boss believes, because the city’s chances of attracting a more experienced city manager are nearly zero.
The community of administrative professionals is small and extremely well-connected. Among them, Atwater is getting a reputation as a “toxic” city. It’s not just because the city’s financial problems are dire; those can be fixed. It’s because of a thoroughly dysfunctional city council.
Kevin Duggan has seen such cities. He was a city manager for 27 years, the last 20 in Mountain View. Now he works for the International City/County Managerial Association, teaching and authoring papers on ethics, civic success and building relationships.
“People don’t realize they’re in a competitive situation trying to attract top-quality people to an organization,” said Duggan, who was unfamiliar with Atwater’s specifics. “You need to have good staff to implement (plans). … A lot of folks will choose to leave – or not go to – an agency simply because of the environment they’re going to encounter.
“In our business we refer to ‘toxic communities’ – where it’s impossible to be successful. When there’s dysfunction, (the city is) paying a price in loss of fundamental services and efficiency. If they want to be stubborn and just argue and have personal dislikes, they’re going to pay the price for that,” said Duggan. “It’s a question of whether or not they’re willing to change.”
A remedy must be found to remove Atwater’s toxin for change to occur. The remedy that makes the most sense is for Mayor Price and councilmember Vineyard to step aside. They’re in the minority, and it’s their actions that have most profoundly contributed to the loss of the last two city managers.
Price’s term is up in November. Admitting this job is no fun, he hasn’t decided whether to run again. Still, the election is a long six months away. A lot of good can be done in six months. Or harm.
A city facing $30 million in eventual debt; having run through four city managers; and confronted by any number of critical issues involving its police and other city departments doesn’t have six months to squander.
Price should show some mercy, and help end Atwater’s misery. He should announce he’s not a candidate in November. Or step aside now.