Ceres public safety employees went to work Wednesday wondering why their chief wasn’t there.
The night before, the City Council had met to discuss the discipline or removal of an unidentified employee.
Rumors quickly spread through the Police and Fire departments about Chief and Public Safety Director Art de Werk’s absence, but few received an official explanation until midafternoon.
City Manager Toby Wells sent a mass email to staff just after 2:20 p.m. stating that de Werk was back on medical leave after returning to work last week after a two-month absence.
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De Werk said Wednesday that he could not comment about his absence. The reason for his medical leave is confidential, so Wells said he couldn’t discuss the issue further.
De Werk, 60, returned to the office on light duty last week but agreed Wednesday to go back on medical leave until at least next week, Wells said.
The City Council met for 45 minutes Tuesday during a late-night closed session to discuss the “discipline/dismissal/release” of a public employee, according to the agenda.
Wells would not say which employee was discussed, but it only could have been one of five department heads in the city, including de Werk.
City Attorney Mike Lyions announced at 9:30 p.m., “No final action has been reached, so there is nothing to report out.”
But employees were suspicious when de Werk did not report to the office the next day.
The special meeting was announced about 30 minutes after the council’s regular meeting Monday night, during which members unanimously approved a budget that included freezing the deputy chief position vacated when Mike Borges retired in March.
At the meeting, de Werk expressed concern about the council’s decision, saying the department needs more management than one chief and two lieutenants. “I can’t tell you how concerned I am about liability because of the lack of oversight,” he said.
During de Werk’s two-month medical leave, which started in April, Lt. Rick Collins served as acting chief. But Wells said in the email to employees that Lt. Brent Smith would serve as acting chief in the coming week because Collins will be on vacation. Deputy Fire Chief Bryan Nicholes will be acting fire chief.
Wells said he and de Werk will be in communication sometime next week to determine how to proceed.
Concerning the employee under review at Tuesday night’s meeting, Lyions said, “There will ultimately be other meetings that the council will have regarding this matter.”
De Werk has served as the city’s police chief and public safety director for 15 years.
He came to the city from Casper, Wyo., where he served in a similar dual police and fire chief role for seven years.
He started his law enforcement career at the Palo Alto Police Department, climbing the ranks quickly and becoming a captain by age 27.