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Casper
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Fire chief's early retirement followed weeks of turmoil at department due to leaked emails

Casper Fire Chief Kenneth King’s early retirement followed weeks of turmoil within the department after copies of his emails were distributed to a group of firefighters by an unknown source.

King unexpectedly announced Tuesday that he would retire Friday, more than a month before his expected retirement date of Jan. 2. King told the Star-Tribune Thursday that he retired because his plans to complete a Homeland Security grant fell through and because he hoped to watch the Fiesta Bowl in Arizona with his son if the Ohio State Buckeyes were chosen for the game.

But earlier this month, multiple Casper firefighters received envelopes in the mail that each contained a flash drive and an anonymous letter, according to two of the department’s firefighters, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared repercussions at work. The flash drive contained copies of King’s work emails.

As firefighters looked through the emails, they were shocked by what they saw, the two firefighters said. King used his city email to send suggestive messages to a number of women, both within and outside the city, and make sexual comments about women’s appearances to other fire personnel, according to the interviews with firefighters and copies of the emails obtained by the Star-Tribune.

King spoke briefly with the Star-Tribune on Thursday, but ended the interview when the subject of emails was broached. He later sent a text message in response to a voicemail that detailed the specific emails addressed in this article.

“My only comment is that I’m sorry if any of my emails have made anyone feel uncomfortable,” he wrote.

Both firefighters mentioned one email that stood out.

King sent an email in April 2015 to the entire department that included a link to a news story about a female rescue worker who had died during a water rescue in Alabama. Later that evening, a mid-level fireman responded: “At least it was just a female.” King then replied, “Copy that!”

Not only is that email disrespectful, one of the firefighters who spoke to the Star-Tribune said, but it reflects poorly on the department.

“If the citizens of Casper saw that, they would think that the fire department doesn’t care about women,” he said.

***

City Manager Carter Napier said he received copies of King’s emails sometime before Thanksgiving, though his were in paper form. He also received a letter that listed concerns with the chief, he said. Napier didn’t know how many people had received the emails but said “it could be a huge spread.”

“I have not seen the emails that are in the flash drive,” he said Thursday. “But I was given a stack of hard copy emails and I assume the two are the same.”

Napier said Thursday that he met with King on Tuesday and the chief asked if it was possible to retire earlier than expected. Napier then called in a human resources employee and King decided then that he would retire at the end of the week.

Napier said he did not ask King to retire early and then noted that he does not discuss conversations about personnel issues with the media. When asked if the emails played a factor in King’s early retirement, Napier deferred to King.

“For him to attribute that to his decision would be up for him to declare one way or another,” he said.

In a phone interview Thursday, King told the Star-Tribune that he was aware his emails were circulating the department. When asked when he became aware of the emails being passed along, King said he did not want to discuss emails. When asked if the emails played a factor in his decision to retire early, the phone call became disconnected. King did not return further calls from the Star-Tribune.

In an email sent Tuesday to fire department staff and obtained by the Star-Tribune, King said that he had planned to retire at the first of the year.

“But I just can’t get the Fiesta Bowl out of my mind, and why drive all the way home just for a retirement ceremony,” he wrote.

***

King announced his January 2018 retirement date in October 2016, hours after apologizing for an email asking a fire investigator to delete “bad parts” from video evidence of the Cole Creek Fire. King said the email was a joke, but apologized for “insensitive words and lack of judgment” after the Star-Tribune published a story about the email. A city investigation found that some video evidence was not made public, but that none of the video had been altered.

Former City Manager John Patterson appointed King as fire chief in July 2013.

Napier declined to comment on any conversations he’s had with King about the content of the emails, citing the need for privacy regarding personnel matters. When shown a copy of the email about the deceased female firefighter, Napier said he had not seen it previously, but that it was “disappointing.” When asked about the sexual nature of some of the emails, Napier spoke broadly.

“When we have interactions through any part of the organization that are sexual in nature or are innuendo in any way, that is something I follow up with immediately,” he said. “There’s just no room in the workplace for that level of inappropriateness.”

In multiple emails with fire personnel, from higher ranking staff to line firemen, King discussed “crushes” he had on various women in both his private and professional world and those women’s appearances. In a September 2013 email, he sent a mid-level firefighter a comparison of two women’s physical appearances and ages. He wrote that one woman, who is identified by her initial and last name and does not appear to be a city employee, is “younger and will be hotter” while the other woman, identified similarly, “is hot now.”

He also sent images of women dressed seductively to multiple women within the city — including women who were his subordinates — implying that the images resembled the women or insinuating that the women should dress similarly. In one 2014 email, he responded to a city employee’s question about dress code for a promotion ceremony by insinuating she should wear a sexy Halloween costume.

When shown some of the emails containing the sexual innuendos on Friday, Napier said, “It’s incredibly disappointing to see this stuff.”

The two firefighters were also shocked when they discovered the sexual content of the emails.

“Reading it, it was blatant flirting, always leading to blatant innuendo,” one firefighter said, noting that he thought some workplace flirting among peers is OK. “But from a department head, my jaw just dropped open.”

***

Napier declined to comment on whether other fire department employees were being investigated or disciplined in connection to the emails. Napier said that he had received questions from City Council about the emails but declined to comment further on the nature of those conversations.

The atmosphere at the fire department has been tense since the emails came forward, both firefighters who spoke to the Star-Tribune said. The emails were another setback in an already divisive work environment, they said.

“It’s very disheartening,” one said. “To think you have a brotherhood ... then to find out it is not universal.”

Napier said he became aware of the divisive culture within the fire department while speaking with firefighters about what they wanted in their next chief. He said the city will now work to determine how pervasive the damaging culture is within the department, though he believes it is a reflection of a small percentage of the staff.

“We obviously have some things to correct, and we will correct this,” he said. “We don’t serve the community well when we’re divided.”


Ryan Dorgan, Star-Tribune 

Wayne and Myrna Brautigam look out along a ridge bordering their property east of Cheyenne in 2015 that would become active with new development. Houston-based EOG Resources has recently proposed injection wells that landowners in the Triple Crown Estates subdivision worry could pollute their water wells. 


Energy
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Cheyenne-area landowners worry about water as oil field grows nearby

Wayne and Myrna Brautigam moved up to Wyoming for retirement when Fort Collins started to get too busy. They bought a 10-acre plot in the prairie and built a home and a shop where Wayne could work on cars. It’s about 20 minutes outside of Cheyenne in a subdivision with wheat fields on its edges and water from a well.

And an oil field creeping up to their front door.

Industry wasn’t always one of their nearest neighbors. Oil and gas production in Laramie County never produced much, not compared to the success of the Powder River Basin to the north or the gas fields to the east.

Now the Denver Basin, where the Brautigams’ home is located, is an up and coming field, and the couple is grappling with the unexpected baggage that the state’s main economic driver carries behind it. They don’t like the flaring or the muddy roads with heavy truck traffic, however courteous the drivers may be. Most recently, a common practice in the oil and gas fields has them alarmed, along with a number of their neighbors.

The largest operator in the basin, EOG Resources, has proposed a number of injection wells under a mile from two subdivisions, Triple Crown Estates and Durham. The wells would be used to pump oil and gas waste water thousands of feet beneath the surface into the Sussex aquifer, a waterlogged band of fine to medium grade sandstone bound by shale.

The proposals by EOG have not been approved yet. A public comment period ends this week, and a number of locals are weighing in, asking the state to keep the injection wells away from their houses which rely on well water.

State regulators say their rules dictate safe construction and neither the well nor the aquifer will leak toxins if done correctly. Federal regulators have to give the okay to allow waste water in a potential water source and are considering the one proposal that’s made it to them so far. The company says it’s committed to doing this safely and has a track record to back them up.

But landowners find themselves in a familiar conundrum in Wyoming: the tense balance between the economic boon of jobs and revenue associated with the oil and gas fields and the impact those industries have on nearby homes and long-term resources.

Buried deep

Cheyenne gets about 70 percent of its water from surface sources like reservoirs and lakes. The remaining 30 percent is pumped up from a number wells that go about 400 to 450 feet beneath the surface.

The oil and gas injection wells, by contrast, go down more than 5,000 feet. That’s where the Sussex lies.

“I cannot imagine a situation where we would try to go that deep for drinking water. It is just not feasible (with today’s technology),” said Bruce Hattig, engineering and water resource manager for Cheyenne.

Upward migration of toxins or leaks can be a concern, but that’s why there are state rules to build wells properly and investigate the geology, Hattig said.

He trusts the regulators to judge where the injection wells are safe to operate.

“Of course we are interested,” he said. “But the key is that it is going through the appropriate review processes.”

Tapping the Denver

Few would feel confident saying that Wyoming’s current oil and gas market is booming after the bust of the last few years. But relative to its history, the Denver Basin is on the rise.

The challenges landowners perched on the edge of the Triple Crown Estate are facing are a side effect of an oil and gas success story welcome to many in a state still reeling from lost jobs and tax money.

The downturn reduced revenue streams at the state and local level to a trickle as production declined and what was pumped out of the ground was sold at a lower price. Many large companies left to focus on profitable assets in Texas or the Midwest. But EOG stuck around, drilling through the bottom of the bust.

The firm began constructing long lateral wells in a new band of rock in the Denver Basin about four years ago, and their strategies have revolutionized the basin despite the downturn.

Compared to five years ago, production from the top five operators in Laramie County had increased by 545 percent in 2016.

In regard to environmental and health concerns, the company has a good track record nationally.

Creighton Welch, a spokesman for the company, said EOG’s 300 Wyoming employees live and work in these areas too, and are also concerned that there are safeguards against pollution.

The company will follow the rules prescribed by the state to protect groundwater, from the permitting phase to ongoing monitoring, he said.

Risks and rules

The Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission hasn’t approved or denied these proposals yet. Tom Kropatsch, deputy supervisor for the commission, maintained that many of the public comments thus far introduce concerns that are covered by the rules.

The OGCC requires baseline water testing, which EOG did on the Brautigam’s place years’ back. It also has strict rules for how the injection wells are constructed, Kropatsch said.

Before regulators allow a company to inject produced water, they analyze the rock formation to judge whether the rock can contain potential toxins and whether it would be economically feasible to be used as a water source at some time in the future, Kropatsch said.

And they know quite a bit about the rock above and below the Sussex, he said. The Pierre Shale is about 3,000 feet thick above and 2,650 feet thick below the aquifer. The produced water won’t get out of there, he said.

The Commission has authority over injection wells, but drinking water is governed by the Environmental Protection Agency’s office in Denver.

If the state decides to allow EOG’s injection wells, it has to send off an aquifer exemption request to the EPA proving that the produced water won’t migrate out and pollute other formations or move up and taint water wells.

The exemptions don’t apply to the entire aquifer. One of EOG’s requests is for the state and federal regulators to expand an existing injection zone because the planned volume of fluid will likely push beyond the borders originally requested.

The federal agency, particularly in the Denver region, has made drinking water one of its top priorities under the Trump Administration, the new head, Doug Benevento, said in a recent interview with the Star-Tribune. The Sussex is designated as a U.S. Drinking Water source, the agency confirmed.

A spokesman said the regional office had received one aquifer exemption request so far from EOG’s proposed wells and sent it back to the company with a request for more data.

“We have requested that the operator re-evaluate the area that may be impacted by injection activities, re-evaluate the location of drinking water wells in the revised area, and update any information that may change in the application due to changes in the supplemental information requested,” said EPA spokesman Richard Mylott, in an email.

Unconvinced

Some locals, however, say injection wells are more dangerous than the state makes them out to be. Casings fail, concrete deteriorates and people make mistakes.

“An accident can happen, and they are going to say ‘oops… we contaminated all this drinking water and we don’t know how to fix it now,’” said Brautigam, the landowner.

His issue is that the water locals use for wells is closer to the surface, and these proposed injection wells, some within a mile of the houses, have to drill through that water zone.

For others, there are ongoing concerns with how the state regulates the oil and gas industry, relying on companies like EOG to provide data in regard to potential impacts of their production.

EOG could pump up to 25,000 barrels of produced water into the aquifer per day, and since the area isn’t as historically developed as other basins, there is a lot the state doesn’t know about what’s underground, some say.

“We need some data in order to justify whether that is a good decision,” said Jill Morrison, organizer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council. “What is the water quality of the Sussex across a large area? What can it produce? Is it the future drinking water supply?”

She, and others, also disagree with the state’s confidence about the rock’s ability to contain the salty water and flow back fluid within the Sussex.

Some see the economic benefit of what’s happening in the Denver Basin, said Casey Quinn, a member of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, based in Cheyenne. Others are worried and confused by the rules and regulations, what companies can do and what the risks are, Quinn said.

When development was far from houses, people didn’t have to pay attention to regulations, public comment periods or aquifer pollution, he said. Now they do.

Brautigam, the landowner, wants a public hearing on the injection wells, which he believes should be moved farther from the subdivision. He said he knows there are limits to what landowners can do about the growth of the oil field, but he doesn’t like the direction its going.

“It will start to look like Houston here before too long,” he said. “No trees, but pretty oil wells all around.”


Education
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Education
Draft education model would increase some class sizes, keep salaries at current levels, consultants say

Some Wyoming class sizes would increase while teacher salaries would remain largely the same under a school funding proposal presented to lawmakers Thursday.

The proposal — created by education consultants Augenblick, Palaich and Associates — was a first look at what Wyoming could have as a new funding model come the spring. Lawmakers, together with the consultants, have been working since the spring on recalibration, a process through which the state examines its educational program and how it pays for it.

The consultants did not provide a cost-estimate for their recommendations. They’ll collect feedback on the proposals before submitting another draft by Dec. 15 and a final report by Jan. 12. The Select Committee on School Finance Recalibration, which oversees the process and the consultants, will meet for the final time in late January, a few weeks before the legislative session begins.

Because it’s essentially a draft of a draft, the report presented Thursday may change by the time it’s considered by the committee. Still, it provided an idea of the types of changes Wyoming’s education system could be facing.

Recalibration typically occurs every five years, but lawmakers called the broad review to be moved up from 2020 to this year as the state tries to grapple with its education funding shortfall.

What was presented showed the fruits of that review. The consultants’ recommendations would increase the overall student-to-teacher ratio from 15-to-1 to 17 to 1. The most significant jump would be in fourth and fifth grade, which would have 23 students per class compared to the 16 that the current model calls for.

Sen. Chris Rothfuss, a Laramie Democrat, acknowledged that many districts don’t meet the classroom size ratio that the state expects. But some do, he said, like his own Albany County School District.

The districts that stayed closer to the model would be somewhat punished by this move, he said: They would see their classroom sizes go up while their salaries would stay the same. Bigger classes would mean too many teachers.

He suggested the 23-student classroom ratio recommendation came from conversations with educators around the state, rather than a research-supported proposition.

“I’m a little concerned that that isn’t in-depth enough,” Rothfuss told the consultants. “It’s not enough of a justification. ... I think that would probably eliminate 10 percent of our teachers at that staffing ratio.”

Indeed, in a vacuum, those class size increases would suggest a significant funding cut to schools. But the consultants’ draft also includes a recommendation for keeping teachers’ salaries as they are actually paid, which is typically more than what the state expects.

Districts receive their funding in a block grant that largely gives them latitude to spend money as they see fit. The districts generally pay their teachers more than what is called for in the model in order to keep teachers in Wyoming. As a tradeoff, they usually employ fewer teachers and have slightly larger class sizes than the state expects.

The consultants would end that tradeoff. The proposal would give districts more money for salaries, to match what teachers are actually being paid. The districts would also be given less money for class sizes, to match how large the classes actually are.

“It’s not that people are way overpaying salaries,” Donna Little-Kaumo, the superintendent of Sweetwater County School District No. 2, told lawmakers. “Because $42,000 as a business manager or $38,000 for a teacher is not going to cut it in Green River, I’ll tell you that.”

Comparing models

To arrive at their recommendations, the consultants studied the current model — known as the legislative model — and compared it to other potential models. One, known as the professional judgment approach, convenes panels of educators and experts, who then make recommendations for resources to deliver a quality education. The second, called successful schools, studies the best schools in the state, determines how they’re spending their resources and then applies that standard statewide.

A combination of the three analyses led to the consultants’ recommendations, they said.

“We did look at the places that are doing well and what their actual class sizes were, and they were in line with what the range is there,” consultant Amanda Brown told Sen. Dave Kinskey, a Sheridan Republican.

In addition to salaries and class size proposals, the draft recommendation would increase funding for instructional facilitators — which the Legislature slashed last winter; provide funding for nurses; change how attendance — a key driver of funding — is calculated to make it more uniform; provide health insurance as it is now; provide half-day preschool programs for all 4-year-olds; continue funding special education similarly with some more oversight; encourage more state oversight to cut back on transportation costs; and more.

Cost unknown

What’s missing in the proposal is cost.

“Do you know if that’s going to be a wash?” Kinskey asked Brown, meaning if the salary changes would be offset by the class size increases. Brown replied that information would be available when the salary analysis was completed.

Though Rothfuss was concerned by the classroom size changes, he said in an interview after the meeting that he thought many of the recommendations were “pretty good” and that he guessed the recommendation was roughly equal to the cost of the current model.

Donna Little-Kaumo, the superintendent of Sweetwater County School District No. 2, said she had no idea what the proposal would cost the state. She said some of the draft was OK, but she said that the analysis from the meetings — which showed that Wyoming spends similarly to its neighbors — indicated that its current funding model was both cost-effective and relatively efficient.

The cost is important: While recalibration cannot legally be used as a vehicle for education cuts, it’s hard to extricate the process from reductions. Normally, the process takes place every five years. Last completed in 2015, it was called early this year as the state grapples with a large education funding shortfall.

Educators and some legislators have warned that calling recalibration early as an implicit way to slash schools’ budgets is a gamble. Legally, the consultants and lawmakers must first determine what constitutes an adequate and equitable education and then, with that determination in hand, decide how much money is needed to provide that schooling.

Thus there’s a chance recalibration could result in a more expensive model. Of course, consultants could recommend a cheaper one as well, but the point is that whatever the price tag, it must be pegged to the educational outcome first and foremost.

Regardless of what the consultants settle on in their final report, it’s far from certain that lawmakers will accept their recommendations. In 2015, for instance, the recalibration committee decided to set aside an updated funding model in favor of the one it had had for years. There’s a chance — albeit one that is nearly impossible to predict — that could happen again.

Little-Kaumo said she didn’t think lawmakers would ultimately support a bill to overhaul the funding model. She predicted — as other superintendents have — that schools would simply face more cuts from different legislation.

Given the action of another interim committee, she’s likely correct. The Joint Education Committee approved a bill last month to cut about $16 million from schools through a variety of relatively small moves, though that legislation is still a ways from becoming law.

Rothfuss said he had no idea if the committee would recommend overhauling the current funding model. Speaker Steve Harshman, a Casper Republican, said he thought they would.