Ceres police chief’s dismissal leaves many questions in its wake

06/19/2014 8:48 PM

06/19/2014 8:49 PM

The abrupt dismissal of Ceres’ police chief has left many unanswered questions for the residents of the city. In addition, it has given rise to allegations that the city has violated public-meeting laws.

Within days of returning from a two-month medical leave to undergo surgery for a benign mass in his brain, Art de Werk became the subject of two closed-session meetings to discuss his “discipline, dismissal or release.”

Monday, City Attorney Mike Lyions reported after the second closed-door session that de Werk would be relieved of his duties.

Lyions read a statement and issued a news release, citing de Werk’s recent medical issues as the reason for his departure.

De Werk said he could not discuss anything related to the terms and conditions of his departure from the city, but said the surgery he underwent to treat the benign mass was 100 percent successful.

The Bee has submitted a public records request for details of de Werk’s severance agreement, which remains in his confidential personnel file.

City Manager Toby Wells said a decision about whether to release the file would not be made until after the end of a seven-day period when the contract is finalized in accordance with state and federal labor laws.

De Werk had served as the city’s police chief and public safety director, overseeing police and fire, since 1999. For more than three years, he assumed the role of acting city manager at no additional cost to taxpayers until giving up the role in March when Wells, the city’s engineer, was appointed to the position.

Brown, Sunshine acts

“I am very perplexed that (the council) did this 180 on the chief,” said former Councilman Guillermo Ochoa. “He was doing three jobs, he was extremely instrumental in passing the budget, he was very, very liked by the Latino community, and I am speaking for the silent segment.”

Ochoa noted de Werk’s role in repairing relationships between law enforcement and the city’s Latino community after the 2005 shooting of Sgt. Howard Stevenson led to sweeps for gang members, guns and drugs.

The chief hired a liaison for the Police Department to mend relationships, held barbecues at migrant labor camps, talked to vendors at the flea market and always could be seen at the Cinco de Mayo parade, Ochoa said.

Ochoa wrote a letter to Wells and Mayor Chris Vierra last week expressing his concern over de Werk’s future with the city. “I hope you reconsider your actions if you are thinking of dismissing the chief, we the Latino community will not take it well,” he wrote, but said he never received a response.

Ochoa had planned to attend the next council meeting to speak publicly in support of de Werk but never got the opportunity.

Neither meeting allowed opportunity for the public to comment on the closed-session item, a violation of the state’s open meeting laws, according to California Newspaper Publishers Association attorney Scott Merrill.

Under the Brown Act, “Every notice for a special meeting shall provide an opportunity for members of the public to directly address the legislative body concerning any item that has been described in the notice for the meeting before or during consideration of that item.”

The California Office of the Attorney General is of the opinion that “legislative bodies afford the public an opportunity to comment on closed-session items prior to the body’s adjournment into closed session.”

The only exception to the public testimony requirement, according to the attorney general, is if the legislative body previously considered an item at a public meeting in which members of the public were afforded an opportunity to comment and that the item had not since been changed substantially.

City Attorney Mike Lyions contended that because the only item on the agenda was a closed-session item, the public did not need to have the opportunity to address it.

“There isn’t an exception written into the language, but I think that it would be interpreted that way,” he said Tuesday. “There isn’t any requirement because there isn’t any logic to opening it up for comment on an item that can’t be discussed and the public doesn’t have the right to consider, only the council has the right to consider.”

Merrill said the language in the Brown Act is clear, but any interpretation of it by a legislative body should be in favor of public access under the Sunshine Act.

Passed by voters in 2004, Proposition 59 made the public’s access to government meetings and writings in accordance with the Brown Act and the California Public Records Act a constitutional right. “A statute, court rule, or other authority … shall be broadly construed if it furthers the people’s right of access, and narrowly construed if it limits the right of access,” the act reads.

NAACP to investigate

Frank Johnson, president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he doesn’t buy the “medical excuse” for de Werk’s departure.

“As far as the NAACP is concerned, we are going to investigate,” he said. “We want to know exactly why this happened.”

Johnson said the potential violation of the Brown Act is one issue that will be investigated, but he declined to say what else he will be looking into.

“It’s too significant for a man that has a record that is unblemished for something like this to take place,” he said. “Many of the programs that the minority community benefits from are going to be gone.”

In 2007, de Werk partnered with nurse practitioner Dan Lucky to create regular community health screenings for underserved residents and eventually opened a clinic in partnership with the NAACP.

The city collected donations for the program and then wrote checks to the NAACP for the total until February, after newly elected Councilwoman Linda Ryno said she was concerned about liability issues associated with the program.

Ryno also agreed during the council’s regular meeting Monday with a proposed budget by Wells that included freezing the deputy police chief position that was vacated when Mike Borges retired in March.

“I would rather not have that position filled because I would rather have cops on the street,” she said. “I don’t really care if you have another body in the office.”

Ryno and Mayor Chris Vierra also expressed interest in a reorganization of the city and an end to deficit spending. They instructed Wells to return in a few months with several ideas of how to achieve those goals, which the council acknowledged could mean layoffs.

At that meeting, de Werk strongly opposed leaving the deputy chief position vacant. The next day, the council held its first closed-session meeting to discuss the future of his job.

Wells said Thursday that de Werk’s departure from the city “has nothing to do with performance or his opinions on matters.”

Ceres Chamber of Commerce President Renee Ledbetter believes the council was moving in a different direction than de Werk.

“I think that he was a great leader during his time, but I think that the city is moving in a new direction that didn’t coincide with the direction that he wanted to move and maybe it was just time for him to move on,” she said. “I think that it was a good decision on the city’s part to review that contract with him. I think that the city’s idea of tightening their belts and looking at restructuring the organization is vital to moving the city forward.”

Ledbetter thinks having a public safety director oversee a deputy police and fire chief is a waste of money and hopes the council will streamline those positions.

Ryno and Mike Kline were the only two council members to respond to calls requesting comment about de Werk and the possible Brown Act violation. Both deferred to Lyions’ interpretation of the law, but Ryno said she expects many people will comment during the next regular council meeting Monday.

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