Atwater residents search for answers at first Council meeting with Art de Werk as city manager

By BEVERLY BARELA
January 11, 2018

Monday night’s Atwater City Council meeting was the first with Art de Werk in the position of Interim City Manager on his fourth day of employment, and although the Council members publicly expressed their willingness to find a way to work together, a rancorous tone was pervasive, with some citizens during public comment time questioning the process that resulted in the decision to hire de Werk and others scolding the entire Council or the Mayor for recent bickering over the de Werk controversy.
Atwater Mayor Price, who refused to sign de Werk’s employment contract pending answers to questions about de Werk’s pre-employment background check, announced, "I want to pledge that I will be working with Mr. de Werk. I won’t be an impediment to progress in this city."

The question looming is whether de Werk, whose contract with the city is temporary and expires in six months, will apply for the position of permanent city manager. Previously, de Werk said that whether he sought long-term employment as city manager would depend on how he felt the community accepted him.

During Monday night’s meeting, de Werk expressed positive feelings about the community and the city staff, describing them as a family, but commented, "I haven’t necessarily been accepted into the family. They will make the right decision at the right time. That’s why I’m not bailing."

Routine agenda items were approved, and de Werk announced that on Jan. 18 at 8 a.m. in the City Council Chambers, he will make himself available to the public and city staff at a coffee for questions about anything, whether personal or having to do with his goals and objectives.

Positive announcements by Atwater Mayor Jim Price and Atwater Mayor Pro Tem Jim Vineyard lightened the atmosphere, as did the presentation of a $2,000 check to Sandy Rahn, Recreation Department Supervisor, which was a donation from Central Valley Disposal for the remodeling of the pavilion at Veteran’s Park in Atwater being spearheaded by volunteer Harry Markarian.

Mayor Price’s positive news was that the Ferrari Ranch project is anticipated to include two or three hotels, something he has been advocating for.

He said, enthusiastically, "Things are finally gelling and coming together."

Price has been keeping in close touch with David Dolter, the real estate broker for the project, and has been encouraging the inclusion of hotels because the transient occupancy tax generated by hotels is a local tax that the county is not able to share.

He said, "I was with David Dolter, and he said he has tentatively explored putting two hotels instead of one. We’re potentially looking at three hotels, a mini mart and some restaurants."

Vineyard’s positive news was that a business is interested in purchasing some land on Commerce, which would be a boon to the community.

He said, "There will be a presentation to Council in the future."

In contrast to the seemingly positive atmosphere, during public comment time Manuel Pinto expressed dismay that de Werk had re-emerged and had been hired in December after being passed over in April when a possible Brown Act violation arose in connection with a gathering at Almond Tree Restaurant where he was seen with Council members Cindy Vierra, Paul Creighton and Brian Raymond. The 3 to 2 vote to hire de Werk, after the city had paid a headhunter, Murray & Associates, $24,900 to find candidates with no local controversy, was still irksome.

Pinto asked de Werk, exasperatedly, "How are you here?"

During an interview with the Times, Pinto said, "I meant how is he back in the position? I just don’t understand how they could spend that amount of money and we’re right back to where we were. What a waste of our time!"

Referring to the three Council members who voted de Werk in as Interim City Manager, Cindy Vierra, Paul Creighton and Brian Raymond, Pinto said, "This is strictly a friendship pact. It’s very obvious. Mrs. Vierra states she is not friends with de Werk, but she completely negates this by saying, ‘He’s my guy’ at the last Council meeting. There’s a picture of the three of them at Adam Gray’s office on Facebook. There they are, the three amigos. They’re the ones putting that out there. They’re trying to go in the direction they want by sidestepping everything. It’s as if they’re saying, ‘This is how we’re going to do it’. How do we know they’re not having meetings discussing Council business?"

He continued, "I don’t have anything against anyone, but Mr. Creighton has the unofficial position of tour guide of the city for the potential candidates. Is that appropriate? Cindy Vierra stated she did her own investigation of de Werk with the City of Ceres, and I don’t think she can do that unless she has instruction to do so. It shows their lack of experience in the political arena."

Pinto said, "I don’t know how Mr. Terpstra allows these Council members to say what they say, and he seems to have no remorse. He should be directing them. He should be at the helm, guiding us. I would think our city attorney would step in and say ‘Enough’s enough’."

He added, "The other thing I find is mind-boggling is that Frank Johnson gets up and speaks at our Council meetings. He’s not a member of our community, and he’s included with the issues with the City of Ceres and Mr. de Werk. Mr. Johnson was involved with the practices of this non-profit in Ceres with de Werk. Now, Mr. de Werk is in Atwater and Mr. Johnson is in Atwater. What does Mr. de Werk have? A cult following? I’m absolutely perplexed over the whole thing."

Eric Lee, an Atwater businessman and a regular at City Council meetings, also spoke during public comment time. He described taking the initiative to talk to Art de Werk in person last week. His goal was to express his concerns about de Werk’s pre-employment background check and the process resulting in de Werk’s being hired.

During an interview with the Times, Lee explained, "I am concerned about the process, and the way it was rammed through. It bothers me that we’re doing things that don’t make sense. The Council jumped over Candidate # 1 and Candidate # 2 and took Mitchell, who was third or fourth. My understanding is the Council members then agreed if Graeme Mitchell did not take the position, they would go back to the list and take the next highest. When Mitchell declined, they didn’t go back to # 1 and offer that person the job. They offered it to de Werk. They need to get rid of the way they choose people. It’s their right to choose, but I want to make sure there’s a way of vetting candidates so that there’s no way someone brings in someone they know."

Lee’s perception about the most recently elected Council members, Cindy Vierra and Paul Creighton, was that they came in and began demanding changes from Mayor Price.

Lee said, "This started when they were elected, and once their feathers were a little bit dry, they went after Jim Price. They went after him on rearranging the seating. They didn’t think he should be appointing the mayor pro tem. It continued on. What I see is that they were upset that [former Police Chief/City Manager] Frank Pietro appointed Sam Joseph police chief, and then they didn’t like that the previous Council made Scott McBride Interim City Manager. They felt when they came into office, they should vote for the Interim City Manager. I remember Cindy told me she thought they should have been able to choose the city manager, and she said the new city manager should have the right to appoint the new police chief, and she complained, ‘Why is Sam Joseph leaving to go to the FBI Academy? He’s just getting training so he can lead the city.’ I responded that there is nothing that would indicate Sam would lead the city. She was very, very upset that Sam was appointed police chief."

Lee continued, "I had heard so many things, that Art de Werk did have a background check, he did not have a background check, that he had a cursory background check. I was concerned that he clear up any discrepancies, and clarify what was the background check he underwent. A further background done would end all speculation. De Werk said he would clear the air."

He said, "From there, we moved to what is your plan for Atwater. De Werk said, ‘I haven’t really developed a plan yet because I need to talk to people, find what the concerns are, find out where Atwater is and where it is going.’ He did tell me he is more of a technical person who likes to get his department heads working together, and he wants to make sure the Council and department heads communicate well, and that is his area of expertise - - to make sure the body is functioning well. My conversation with Mr. de Werk centered around his description of his ability to manage people. I hope going forward he may start to have more of a vision because we’re headed for a lot of important stuff."

When speaking at public comment time about the hiring of a permanent city manager, Don Martin wanted to know if the two experienced individuals with city manager backgrounds whom the headhunter found could be invited to a public forum in Atwaterwhere members of the public could express their views.

He said, "Would it be possible to have those two candidates appear and make a 30 minute presentation?"

Although Price explained during an interview with the Times that the selection of a permanent city manager is done by a City Council process that is strictly closed session, Lee commented, "Years ago, seven people from the city pre-interviewed the city manager candidates. They were members of the general public, and they just asked them questions about their visions for the community, and they also answered the candidates’ questions. It had nothing to do with ranking a candidate; it had everything to do with letting people know they were part of the process. The City Council still had the same authority to interview them to make the decision."

When interviewed after the meeting about the permanent city manager position, Price said, "Has anyone heard Art de Werk did well as a city manager in Ceres? I haven’t. I haven’t heard anything about any accomplishments from anyone, including Cindy. We need to be able to ask the question: Would you hire this person again? We can’t ask that question because we’re under a gag order. I made the statement a couple meetings ago that what I wanted was someone from outside the area. It all goes back to what happened in April. When we brought on Murray & Associates, that was my whole thing. This way, we avoid what we’re going through today. Get someone who comes from somewhere else, not anywhere close to here. We found two of them that are like that. The guys we vetted come with stories, experience, and accomplishments."

When asked if Art de Werk will be required to undergo a more thorough background check, Price said, "I don’t know at this point if that will ever happen because it would call for the Council to do that. De Werk is not compelled to answer any of those questions. For now, he’s here. I will work with him as much as I can. I’m ready to give him the benefit of the doubt. I’m hopeful that I’ll see something positive from him very soon."

When asked whether Atwater’s financial consultant, Bill Zenoni, forecast a financial crisis in the future of Atwater if nothing changes, Price responded, "Both

Zenoni and Scott McBride were adamant about the trend as far as where it’s going and I’m concerned because we don’t have that rush of business coming. Ferrari Ranch is going to take awhile to develop. The clock is ticking on our Cal Pers obligation all the time. The rate increase started on January 1, and it’s going to be substantial. I want to say it’s in the millions. In February 2017, we had a workshop where we discussed the financial challenges and that was pretty much at the top of the list. Prior to that, we had tried to refinance the outstanding debt and it got voted down. The attitude from certain council members is it wouldn’t have mattered if we did the refinancing or not because Cal Pers took a run up. But it would have lessened the blow, and now we’re getting the full brunt."

Asked what he would like to see from de Werk, Price said, "He’s the city manager, and he needs to form some kind of plan. Financial challenges need attention and planning. There’s a long list of things that need to be handled."

The Times interviewed Art de Werk after the meeting.

When asked what is his plan as acting City Manager, he said, "The first step is familiarization with the employees, the community. There is a steep learning curve. How are the processes different from the places I’ve worked in the past? This is something that based on my experience I can figure out. The budget, the infrastructure needs a lot of work, the employees haven’t had a raise for six years, there’s been inconsistencies at the department head level because of downsizing and people leaving the organization so there’s a real need for the organization to build a sense of stability. The city will plod along no matter who is the city manager. My goal is to have a positive effect on the employees and the organization, not one that creates more instability. I have some tentative goals like team building. The idea is to work with the Council and affirm prior goals they have worked on and see if any of those have changed, to improve communications and become more effective at overall oversight of the organization.

"We have employees doing multiple jobs, and that slows processes down and increases stress levels and sometimes work products suffer as a result. We’re trying to get information to the Council more quickly. There’s so many things that need to be done. I know our budget has been looked at by multiple people for cost savings and modifications, but it has to be done again. I’m not inclined to depend on the interpretations from people in the past. My fresh eyes might be able to find ways to save money or be more efficient. Every component has to be visited and reviewed. Also, I am meeting with community members which spans all kinds of areas. Some are people who are dissatisfied with practices in the city, some are developers. There are a number of meetings being scheduled that cover all kinds of bases. These are people who have reached out to me, knowing that I’m the new interim CM and they have things they would like me to follow up on. Some of them are not matters for public consumption but I view them as being positive. I have to be vague because these are business matters and subject to competition.

Also the city is going through a recruitment process for six or seven positions. The city manager has a role in the selection process, pending personnel actions. These are all things I have to deal with on a concurrent basis.

"I think the city manager and certain key people in the organization have to do active marketing to find businesses beneficial to the community. I just started talking with staff this morning on that.

"I want to make sure our customer service is where it ought to be in terms of satisfaction by the citizens. If there are needs or areas where we’re really excelling, those are areas that need to be identified.

"We’re negotiating the contract with Cal Fire for fire suppression services, emergency response. That’s just one of many meetings throughout the day. Today was my first formal discussion with their representatives. We have a few ideas that might help the city save money and keep the equipment closer to the city but it’s a little too early. We haven’t played it out. There’s also just the basics - we have a contract that needs to be renewed. Cal Fire proposes a certain amount on an annual basis, and we look at it and say whether we can or can’t afford it. It will take some more time. I get the sense people are very happy with Cal Fire and I think they’re doing a great job and I really like the staff they have. In terms of the protection for the community, I don’t see a better way to do it but we still have to keep our expenditure within our ability to pay.

"There are other contracts. PAL is coming up. We’re working on the mid-year budget review. It really isn’t any different than a private corporation conducting business."

When asked about the hiring process which resulted in his employment in Atwater, de Werk said, "I applied for the position. I was informed I did very well. They didn’t say where I was numerically on the list of eligible candidates. Then at some point, a critical event took place. One evening after I went to a Council meeting, I went to the Almond Tree to meet with a citizen. I met with that citizen, kind of a self-appointed high stakeholder in the community. There was one Council person there, talking with another Council member, and then another Council member showed up. I don’t think there was a plan. Even if there were three Council members there and they said, ‘Let’s have dinner’, it was a casual free-wheeling social interaction, and no one should assume business was being discussed. We agreed later it looked bad on its face. It wasn’t improper, but it seems like that tainted my candidacy for the position. I think the Council thought, ‘Let’s go with someone else.’ [Interim City Manager] Bramble needed to leave, so they called me and asked, ‘Are you still interested?’ I had shifted back into a kite surfer mode, but eventually I listened to what different people had to say about not letting things I learned go to waste. I received an interview by the headhunter, Murray & Associates, and I was also interviewed by all Council members along with the city attorney. Several Council members took it upon themselves to contact my colleagues in Ceres, so they did some of their own vetting. When the Council voted to offer me the position on December 11th, the next day I went in for a medical, drug test and live scan where they check the local, state and national records for arrests, of which they were none."

When asked how he found out there was a job opening for Interim City Manager in Atwater, de Werk said, "In the 2010 time frame, when Mayor Joan Faul met with me, she came to Ceres on a couple of occasions. They wanted to find out how well the city manager/police chief arrangement was working for me. That kind of started my relationship with Atwater. There was also a former Ceres employee, Stan Feathers, who used to work here. After I retired and I healed completely from the surgery I had in April 2014, I wasn’t really finished with my career. I wanted to do something. I was told Atwaterwas looking for reserve police officers, and I thought that would be nice to do something productive. I put in for that job, and they scheduled interviews. I was unable to attend the interview, but by now, my name was out there and not a long time later, I can’t remember who called me, but someone called me and said there’s a city manager position coming up. I did apply. I believe that at the time I applied, they hadn’t used the services of the head hunter. I don’t remember for sure. But a head hunter firm did get involved at some point when I was going through the selection process, Murray & Associates. Interestingly, when I took the job in Casper, Wyoming, it was Murray & Associates who handled that, so I had a history with that organization. That was 1991. I’m actually on their website as a person available to do interim city manager and interim police chief jobs."

He concluded, "I’m proud of my career. I’ve made plenty of mistakes. But as I tell my employees, you grow from your mistakes and it’s how you handle your mistakes. The last thing the city needs is distractions from the business like the budget they face. I don’t want to be a destructive force they see like the shadows or the dark side of the organization."


SHOPPING FOR NEW CUSTOMERS?
ADVERTISE HERE!
Call (209) 383-0433
or (209) 358-5311

© 2018 Merced County Times. All Rights Reserved. Powered by  Imedia West