Atwater al fresco

 "Is the bigot still on the council?" asked a relocated Valley citizen the other night, when we were standing again before the Mystery of Atwater politics.
"Think he's gone by now, but let's check." (1)
This reference was to the Famous Frago Fracasso, concerning a former Atwater fire chief and former city council member, Gary Frago, who was distributing racist smut about President Barack Obama from his city computer and email address. After a lengthy public debate, a letter of reprimand and an attempt at recall,  Frago was sent to the Bay Area for sensitivity training and was defeated in the 2012 General Election.
Now, another retired Atwater fire chief, James Vineyard, steps up and takes his place in the city's Pantheon of Slimeballs by using police and fire cadets -- kids who joined programs in order to learn to be cops and fire fighters -- to pass out political leaflets. This breaks more campaign laws than we can count, but, in Atwater, big shot cops and firemen probably regard it as basic instruction in how to shake down a city. 
It gets better.

The committee’s treasurer and former Atwater Police Chief Bob Calaway responded during the meeting, admitting to the use of cadets but disputing the use of the PAL van by the committee.
He said comments about the use of a police program van are not true because the “Fiscal Responsibility and Accountability Committee did not use the police van, nor did we ask a cadet adviser to drive this van.” He added that the cadets were advised not to wear uniforms, use police vehicles or equipment. -- Ramona Giwargis, Modesto Bee, Oct. 10, 2014.

The present police chief, Frank Pietro, incidentally also the city manager, don't know nothing about it but claims to be real mad.
Up on the podium on October 13 with Atwater's City Council, was Tom Terpstra, city attorney. Prior to allowing the public to speak in the public comment period prior to the regular meeting -- a real murderers' row of critics including one candidate for mayor -- Terpstra advised the speakers not to address issues the council couldn't do anything about, like, for example, declaring Atwater a "nuclear free zone."
Considering that, as of 2012, more than 120 communities across the nation have declared themselves to be "nuclear free zones;"
and, Considering that in at least some if not the vast majority of those communities, the call for nuclear free status came from the community itself rather than its elected officials;
We conclude that Terpstra's advice was just another attempt on the part of Atwater government to intimidate citizens. The speakers ignored him. It did not apply to them because the council could do something about their concerns by just resigning en masse, admitting their guilt, paying their fines or doing their time, for starters. -- blj
Merced Sun-Star
Real estate agent makes last-minute entrance in Atwater City Council race
A newcomer entered the Atwater City Council race minutes before the close of the deadline for candidates to pull filing paperwork to run for office in November.
The deadline was extended to 5 p.m. Wednesday because the two incumbents in Atwater – Mayor Pro Tem Craig Mooneyham and Councilman Jeff Rivero – did not file for re-election, according to the county elections office.
Brian Raymond, 33, a real estate agent and co-owner of American Realty in Atwater, said he was contacted by more than 20 people in the community, urging him to run for office. Raymond, who said he had considered running for City Council in the past, rushed to file his paperwork on Wednesday.
“I literally got my papers in at 4:59 p.m.,” Raymond said. “I think my energy and ideas can help restore Atwater. I believe the city needs new leadership to restore Atwater to the place it was when I grew up.”
Raymond, who’s the youngest candidate in the Atwater City Council race, worked as a Livingston police officer for nearly five years. If elected, Raymond said, he plans to focus on restoring law enforcement services, bringing new businesses to Atwater and ensuring fiscal responsibility for the city.
“The cops in Atwater are used as political pawns whenever there is a problem,” Raymond said. “When we’re running out of money, we cut cops. I really want to help law enforcement, and we need to make sure those that protect us are protected.”
Mooneyham and Rivero, both elected in 2010, announced they will not seek re-election this month because of personal and family reasons.
Raymond will run against three other candidates for one of the two seats on the Atwater City Council: elementary school employee Fernando Echevarria, 51; retired fire Capt. James Vineyard, 57; and pastor and former retail executive Bill Barkman, 61.
Atwater resident Steve Jensen previously pulled papers to run for City Council, but said he will no longer seek office.
Atwater voters heading to the polls in November will also be asked to elect the city’s next mayor.
Longtime Atwater Mayor Joan Faul, 73, is seeking re-election, but will be challenged by Jim Price, 63, vice president of operations at Gemini Flight Support.
Retired business owner Wayne Wallace, 77, pulled papers to run against the mayor earlier this month, but said he changed his mind.
Faul has been mayor since 2006, and served four years as a council member prior to that.






Merced Sun-Star
Atwater police program van, cadets used in city election campaign
A committee supporting three political candidates in the contentious Atwater City Council and mayor’s races used a police program van and police cadets (2) to distribute fliers promoting the trio – without the authorization or knowledge of the city’s police chief, the Merced Sun-Star has learned.
City Manager and Police Chief Frank Pietro told the Sun-Star he was both shocked and “livid” when he learned of the incident last weekend, immediately putting a stop to it.
But the damage from using police resources for political purposes is already done, said one ethics expert. And it’s not the first time the same committee used city facilities and taxpayer resources, such as the police, to further its political agenda.
The fallout from the incident resulted in one longtime police volunteer – the driver of the van handing out the fliers – losing his job. Others worry the situation might jeopardize the nonprofit status of the department’s Police Activities League, which oversees the cadets and owns the vehicle.
The fliers supported two council candidates – James Vineyard and Bill Barkman – as well as Mayor Joan Faul, who is seeking re-election in November. They were paid for by the Fiscal Responsibility and Accountability Committee, the same group whose treasurer requested financial contributions be dropped off at the Police Department in May.
Chief Pietro said he received text messages from two current Atwater City Council members on Saturday about the police program van and cadets being used to pass out political fliers.
“I was extremely upset and livid when I heard that,” Pietro said. “I called officer (Robert) Vargas (executive director of PAL) and asked what is going on. He called me back and said one of the advisers came in, got the key and took the PAL van without authorization.”
Pietro said the driver of the van and PAL volunteer for nearly eight years Jeff Connell is no longer with the program. Some say Connell was given direction from someone else to take the van out and was not acting on his own.
Connell could not be reached for comment.
Pietro said it’s unknown who could have given Connell permission to use the van. Pietro questioned Vargas and the police dispatcher on duty, who both denied knowledge of the incident. “Those would be the only two people to have authority to allow someone to take the van,” Pietro said.
Vargas declined comment Friday, saying the city attorney instructed him not to discuss the incident.
Councilman Larry Bergman, one of the two elected officials who contacted Pietro about the issue, said he’s heard contradicting reports about what prompted Connell to use the van. “I heard the adviser did it on his own, and I was also told others directed them to do it,” Bergman said.
Bergman said he was contacted Saturday by residents who saw the van and cadets handing out fliers.
“I was astonished it was taking place. It took me by quite a surprise,” Bergman told the Sun-Star. “They are a nonprofit, and they are not to be involved in political issues like that. And it gives the public the perception that the city is supporting certain candidates.”
Confusion over cadets
Vineyard has continuously touted his experience as a police volunteer and neighborhood watch program coordinator. He outlined in an email last month his plan to use the Atwater Police Officer’s Association and California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection cadets to walk precincts for him.
“We need the flyers out in the next three weeks if possible or before Oct 6th when the absentee ballots come out,” Vineyard wrote in the Sept. 11 email obtained by the Sun-Star. “I’m looking at our group doing 6 of the 12 precincts unless you think we can do more and the APOA/CAL Fire/Cadets, candidate Barkman doing the rest.”
Vineyard did not return calls for comment. 
Though Barkman was named in the email, he denied knowledge that police cadets were used to pass out political pamphlets supporting himself and Vineyard. “I suspected that they might be using cadets, but I had no direct knowledge of it,” Barkman said.
Barkman said the police van should not have been used on Saturday, but blamed the adviser (Connell) for not following directions apparently given by the committee’s treasurer, Bob Calaway.
“What I’ve been told from Bob is that he instructed the people who were there that it was voluntary and to not use uniforms or PAL equipment,” Barkman said.
Pietro said he told officers that police cadets better not wear uniforms or badges if they are used in politics. The cadets are 13- to 17-year-olds who want to learn “what it takes to be a police officer and how to serve the community,” according to Atwater’s website.
“The cadets can help the (political) committee as long as they do it on their time off and without their uniforms,” Pietro said.
It’s unclear if the cadets wore uniforms during the campaign runs. But with or without their uniforms, one longtime Atwater resident said it’s “unethical” to use cadets for political purposes. She spoke out about it during a recent City Council meeting.
“The APOA can endorse whoever they chose, but to send out the cadets – that’s not right,” said Judy Bowling. “This is a political arena. The flier was for three people, not all six candidates.”
Police ‘should be neutral’
A political ethics expert said using Police Department resources in a political campaign is an example of influence peddling.
“They are using their public office to publicize or favor certain political candidates over others,” said April Hejka-Ekins, professor emeritus in the political science and public administration department of California State University, Stanislaus. “Therefore they are not maintaining a neutral, unbiased stand . Something like the Police Department should be neutral in the election.”
Utilizing police cadets is a misuse of their role, she added, because they are there to train to be police officers, not to participate in a political campaign.
This type of conduct could also lead to cronyism, Hejka-Ekins said, with elected officials and the Police Department exchanging favors.
It also could present a disadvantage to the other City Council and mayor candidates.
Atwater mayoral candidate Jim Price called the situation “unfortunate and inappropriate.”
“I find it really inappropriate if it’s a city-owned vehicle, which I believe it is,” he said. “Who authorized that use? That’s the key thing. Someone didn’t go on their own and do it.”
City Council hopeful Brian Raymond said he wants to focus on running a “clean, fair” campaign, but still finds the incident troubling.
“I don’t know if their intent was malicious or not, but it does paint a bad picture for the general public,” Raymond told the Sun-Star. “ While I was happy the chief stopped it, the damage was already done.”
Mayor Faul agreed that distributing political fliers – some of which supported her – from a PAL van was not appropriate, but said the issue was quickly resolved. “That should not have happened, but it did,” the mayor said. “When it was found out by the chief, he immediately took action.”
Modesto Bee
Vinyard Campaign at issue in argument at Atwater City Council meeting
Ramona Giwargis
ATWATER — In the latest round of Atwater political fireworks, a confrontation between a resident and a City Council candidate briefly interrupted a council meeting Monday, spilling out of the chamber and prompting police and fire officials to rush out.
“They were having a conversation and then their voices got a little louder and it got heated,” said Atwater Police Lt. Sam Joseph. “They went outside and started arguing.”
The dispute was between City Council candidate James Vineyard and longtime resident Jack Bowling. Judy Bowling told the Merced Sun-Star her husband called Vineyard out for “telling lies” about her.
“Vineyard says he never knew the cadets were going to be handing out his literature,” Bowling said. “But in one email it said they were going to hand them out. It’s dirty politics and it doesn’t have to be that way. Vineyard knows that I will stand against him, and no one else would dare question his plans.”
Vineyard could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
The outburst happened less than an hour after Judy Bowling publicly blasted Vineyard at the council meeting for using the police cadets to walk precincts and pass out his political fliers. The fliers were paid for by an independent committee, the Fiscal Responsibility and Accountability Committee, and supported a slate of three candidates – Vineyard, Bill Barkman and Mayor Joan Faul.
Judy Bowling said an email written by Vineyard in September (3) detailed his plan to use the police cadets to walk precincts for his campaign. Then last weekend, a van belonging to the Police Activities League, along with a team of police cadets, spent four hours distributing fliers supporting the three candidates.
“It is time for the kid gloves to come off and the truth and facts to be made public,” Bowling said during Monday’s meeting. “It is absolutely in no way, shape or form, right or legal to use our cadets in that manner.”
Bowling, along with others at the council meeting, denounced the use of the PAL van for political purposes.
Jim Price, who is challenging Joan Faul for her seat as mayor, said the situation doesn’t reflect well on the city or its elected officials.
“We walk around in Atwater with a ‘kick me’ sign on our back,” Price said during the council meeting. “The committee that’s passing out the fliers, putting them in the vans that belong to the city, and distributing them with cadets is shameful. Those kids weren’t put into that program to be pawns and to be labor for a political campaign.”
Eric Lee and Linda Dash, two members of the committee, declined comment on the incident after the council meeting.
The committee’s treasurer and former Atwater Police Chief Bob Calaway responded during the meeting, admitting to the use of cadets but disputing the use of the PAL van by the committee.
He said comments about the use of a police program van are not true because the “Fiscal Responsibility and Accountability Committee did not use the police van, nor did we ask a cadet adviser to drive this van.” He added that the cadets were advised not to wear uniforms, use police vehicles or equipment.
During Monday’s meeting, Price said this isn’t the first time something like this has happened during the campaign. He maintained that the police cadets were also used to take down Vineyard’s campaign tent after the Atwater Fall Festival on Sunday.
“Was that a proper use for the cadets? I don’t think so,” he said. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is an Ebola virus right here in Atwater and there’s no cure. It doesn’t look like there’s any cure in sight.”
Atwater Chamber of Commerce President Joe Hoffar told the Merced Sun-Star the cadets helped set up and break down tents in addition to picking up trash and patrolling the park. The chamber sponsors the two-day festival.
Hoffar said the tent taken down by the cadets on Sunday was no longer occupied by Vineyard. He had rented the tent only for Saturday, Hoffar said, and it was empty by the time the cadets removed it the next day.
“Rather than leaving an empty booth in the park, I asked the cadets through the executive director, (Officer) Robert Vargas, to take it down for me,” Hoffar said.
(1) Badlands Journal, "Racism in Atwater City Hall," Aug. 3, 2009,
City of Atwater
Community Pride Citywide
Atwater Police Athletic League Cadets Program
This program is open to Boys & Girls 13 - 17 years old.  They will learn about what it takes to be a Police Officer and how to serve the community by participating in community events.  Meetings are every Monday evening from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.  They will be issued a uniform and suitable gear for their activities.
If you are interested in getting your child involved in this program, please call the PAL office at (209) 357-0986.




(3) Partially redacted email to from redacted sender, regarding "Precinct Walking Meeting," dated  9/11/14.
We are getting together at Brooks Ranch next Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. to discuss which precincts we are walking and who is walking them. I need all of you there if you are still interested so that we can divide up the flyers and discuss how it is to be done. Should you decide that you are not going to be able to assist please let me know ASAP. This is going to be at our leisure but we need the flyers out in the next three weeks if possible or before Oct. 6 when the Absentee ballots come out. I'm looking at our group doing 6 of the 12 precincts unless you think we can do more and the APOA/CALFire/cadets, candidate Barkman doing the rest. There will be two flyers we will be handing out.
Thank you,