CERES — A handful of people spoke Monday about the accomplishments of former Police Chief and Public Safety Director Art de Werk during the first council meeting since his departure from the city June 16.
Latino Community Roundtable President Maggie Mejia made note of his columns in Vida en el Valle, a Spanish-language McClatchy weekly newspaper, that educated the Latino community about public safety, without which there will be “a very huge void in our county.”
Ceres resident Leonard Shepherd credited de Werk for his part in having three new fire stations built during his 15 years with the city. “The man was brilliant in that he let the men who were going to live there design it,” he said. “He has done nothing but make this community better every day of every year that he has been here.”
Resident Ken Groves called de Werk “irreplaceable,” adding “he was like family to everyone, and I don’t know how he managed to find the energy do what he did, but he left a very big impression on me.”
Resident Don Cool countered that the Ceres Police Department is made up of many good officers and its reputation doesn’t hang on just one man. “I don’t think anyone is irreplaceable,” he said. “He’s good, he had a long run here, sometimes it’s just time for a change.”
Questions remain about the nature of de Werk’s sudden departure. The city issued a press release attributing de Werk’s release to medical issues, but speculation – mostly among his supporters – suggests a clash between him and members of City Hall.
The council first discussed de Werk in a closed-session meeting June 10, the day after he told the council he opposed City Manager Toby Wells’ decision to freeze the deputy chief position left vacant in March. Wells said last week that de Werk’s departure from the city “has nothing to do with performance or his opinions on matters.”
Wells took over as city manager in March when de Werk stepped down from the role in which he had served on an interim basis for more than three years.
The Bee is awaiting a response to a public records request for de Werk’s severance agreement, which for unexplained reasons was put in his confidential personnel file.
De Werk said previously that he could not discuss the terms and conditions of his departure from the city. He was out on medical leave for about two months beginning in April for treatment of a benign mass in his brain. He underwent surgery, which he said was 100 percent successful.
De Werk’s brief return to work, before the council voted unanimously to release him, was on “light duty,” but he expected to be medically cleared to resume full-time work in July.
Frank Johnson, president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, told the council Monday that he, too, would be filing a public records request. “It’s unclear to what the findings were, how it was done,” he said. “Was there a Brown Act violation?”
The Modesto Bee reported last week that the city and council might have violated public-meeting laws when they held two closed-session meetings to discuss de Werk’s “discipline/dismissal/release” without first opening the meeting for public comment.
Johnson said he had more to say but would request to be put on a future agenda so he could have more time to speak in front of the entire council. Mayor Chris Vierra and Councilman Bret Durossette were absent Monday.