Atwater City Council members voted to extend the employment contract of their city manager on Monday night during a meeting marked by sharp criticism and viewpoints.
The Council vote was 3-1 to approve an amendment that would extend City Manager Lori Waterman’s term by one year, moving its end date to December of 2024. Mayor Mike Nelson voted NO. Councilman Brian Raymond was not present.
Mayor Nelson was not shy about voicing his disapproval of the extension. After the amendment was introduced, he pulled out a pre-written statement which he read to all in attendance. “During the past eight months that I have been the mayor, I have found the city manager, in my opinion, to not be up to the task, and is not the person to lead the city forward,” the mayor stated to the hushed council chambers. “I have noticed a penchant for procrastination, and an unwillingness to be forthcoming with information that the council and the public are entitled to.”
He continued: “I have found her to be unable to communicate to the council the executive level information that we need. She has demonstrated to me, time and again, that she doesn’t have what it takes to be the manager of a city of 30,000 plus residents.”
During public comment, reactions to the prospect of a term extension, as well as to the mayor’s comments, were mixed.
Former Atwater Mayor Jim Price expressed concerns about Waterman’s qualifications, and called back the circumstances in which she assumed the role. Another Atwater resident echoed those doubts: “You guys sitting up here, you have a task to do, and one of them is to keep this city going. … You have to look at what’s best for the people of Atwater.”
Others were more skeptical of the complaints, and the manner in which they were aired, such as resident Gabriel Santos.
“If it’s not Ms. Waterman, what is our back-up plan?” he asked the council. “I think we’re having personal opinions being relayed today, and that’s unfortunate, because these discussions should happen outside of city council meetings.” A small majority of the Council, with the absence of Councilman Raymond, did not express the same concerns as the mayor. Council member John Cale, who lost to Nelson in the mayoral race during the last election cycle, took issue with his prepared statements.
“You said you like to give people the benefit of the doubt, but from day one you said Lori Waterman needed to be fired,” Cale said. “That’s not the benefit of the doubt.”
Cale then shifted his attention to Waterman: “I’ve worked with you hard to make this city better, and we have. We have done outstanding work with your leadership. … I work with you on a day-to-day basis, and I’ve been extremely satisfied with everything you’ve done. Yes there have been mistakes, but nothing to be pointing fingers at.”
Council Member Button also commented: “To me, actions, numbers, statistics … that’s how someone should be judged.”
Button attributed the city’s survival during the pandemic in part to Waterman, and suggested the extension of her term was the solution to possible future problems. “As the previous mayor outlined very perfectly, it’s a horrendous nightmare of a process, getting a city manager. We’re trying to avoid that. Let’s keep Atwater headed in the right direction.”
After the vote, City Manager Waterman finally had the opportunity to comment. She kept her remarks formal and professional.
“Mayor, I am disappointed you feel this way,” she said. “I’ve tried to build the trust and working relationship that’s so important to be successful. My door has always been open to you. I’ve always been transparent, truthful, and responsive to your inquiries and I will continue to do my part.”
Waterman also stated that she had not been given a proper evaluation from the mayor. “We treat our employees with respect, and I should be able to expect the same consideration.”
Waterman concluded: “I will continue to do the right things for the right reasons. I have no hidden agenda, I only want what’s best for the city.”
Tension was high at times through various parts of Monday night’s Council meeting — the first regular meeting at City Hall after a five-week hiatus that included one meeting cancellation.
Councilman Danny Ambriz took issue with an item on the consent calendar about the Atwater Little League, and its request to add additional fields for the league’s use. It also allowed for an extension on some obligations of the league.
Ambriz voiced concerns that the league had been poorly managed in the previous season in regards to scheduling and communication, and questioned if they were meeting their obligations.
“If the ask is for additional fields to be used, but you can’t maintain the ones that we currently have an agreement with, what incentive is the city getting by giving you these extra fields?” Ambriz asked.
Atwater League Secretary Lisa Rasmussen offered clarification, attributing the scheduling issues with the heavy rainfall earlier in the year.
“It was a challenge,” Rasmussen said. “I don’t know that we could have met that challenge, because we can’t control the weather. But I will say that we did our level best.”
She also gave examples of instances where volunteers who were also local professionals had given assistance to the city in identifying problems. She proceeded to explain that permitting the use of the additional fields would bring revenue into the city from additional teams coming to the area for tournaments.
Councilman Button noted that the current suggested amendment did not include any dates or timelines on the completion of outlined projects. Ambriz made a motion to postpone the decision until the first meeting in September to allow the league time to form a more specific general plan, which was seconded by Button, and the motion passed.
The tone of the meeting was decidedly brighter at the start, when the City Council had multiple ceremonials, the first of which was administering the oath of office for the Atwater Police Department’s newest officer, Roberto Vargas.
“This is always a good day for law enforcement,” said Police Chief Michael Salvador after Vargas was sworn in by City Clerk Kory Billings, and pinned by his two nieces who were in attendance. “When we find someone who is willing to not only take the oath but put his life on the line every single day for his community.”
Following, the Atwater-Winton Lions Club presented a check for $10,000 for the Veteran’s Park soccer field.
“It’s good to see local people working for the betterment of their community,” Mayor Mike Nelson commented. The Atwater-Winton Lions Club shared that they hoped it would go to a new scoreboard and lighting in the area.
The last of the ceremonial matters was a recognition given to Nevaeh-Nicole Ross Burton, a student at Atwater High School, who received recognition for “encouraging confidence and character regarding accessibility awareness amongst students and teachers,” presented by Council Member Tyler Button.
Button had sat in on a class at the school where he had watched her final project for her government class, a TED Talk style assignment in which Ross Burton addressed accessibility for people with disabilities.
“She wasn’t shy,” Button laughed. He had asked her for more information on ways she felt Atwater could improve to increase accessibility. Ross Burton’s recommendations ultimately resulted in actions currently being taken by the city. “She’s definitely a key part of some positive change that’s going to happen in Atwater when it comes to accessibility, and that’s going to be something that will be long-lasting.” Said Ross Burton, “With me being visually impaired, Winton Way is impossible for me to cross. I thank everyone for coming together to get everything accessible.”
She was presented with a certificate from the City of Atwater acknowledging her achievement, which city staff had printed in Braille.