Interim City Manager Liz Becher declined to say why she dismissed Jim Wetzel as Casper police chief last week, though she emphasized that he was not fired.
“That word is off-limits,” Becher said.
The distinction between terminating Wetzel’s contract — which is what Becher did — and firing an employee lies in the terms of his employment agreement.
Casper Police Chief Jim Wetzel is no longer serving as head of the department.
“Employee shall serve at the pleasure of the City Manager of the City, and his employment may be terminated at any time by the City Manager,” the contract states.
Terminating employment may sound like firing, but the difference hinges on whether Wetzel’s contract was terminated for a particular reason.
Because Wetzel was dismissed by the city manager “without cause,” he received six months of severance pay. But he was unable to protest his termination.
In contrast, if Becher had fired Wetzel “with cause,” she would have been required to provide a list of the causes. He would have been provided with an “informal hearing before the City Manager to refute such charges.”
New direction unclear
Becher said she terminated Wetzel’s contract “so the department can be taken in a different direction.”
But she disputed the notion that she was unhappy with the previous direction.
“We were good,” Becher said. “We’re just going in a different direction, probably.”
Becher won’t say what direction that is, only that city staff will be presenting “the new plan” sometime during the next few weeks. She said aspects of it will be discussed during City Council’s budget session, scheduled to begin in two weeks.
Becher said the city will not begin searching for a new police chief until a permanent city manger is hired.
As for what led her to oust Wetzel as chief and bring in the second-highest ranking officer in the department — Capt. Steve Schulz — Becher offered more information.
“I have spent countless hours over the last three weeks reading and listening and observing,” said Becher, who was appointed to replace V.H. McDonald in mid-April.
She spoke with current and retired police department employees and last week reviewed a draft of an investigation by local attorney Judith Studer. The city asked Studer to look into personnel issues at the police department last fall.
A city investigation into the personnel issues at the Casper Police Department is expected t…
Becher said elements of the Studer investigation factored into her decision to terminate Wetzel’s contract. But it was a decision based on the accumulation of evidence and there was no single piece of information that pushed her to act, she said.
“It was a lot of thought,” Becher said. “And I’ve said it before, a lot of prayer.”
In an interview last month, Becher said her faith would help alert her to a need for change at the police department.
“I do believe that that through personal Christian values, we know,” Becher said at the time.
Becher said she decided to dismiss Wetzel shortly before the weekly Council leadership meeting last Thursday afternoon, one day before the chief was informed.
Wetzel had become the subject of controversy after a survey was released by the local Fraternal Order of Police, based on an anonymous poll of department employees and including unattributed comments, blasting him as arrogant and a poor leader.
The unsigned survey also claimed that senior CPD employees had brought concerns about Wetzel’s leadership to the attention of city officials last spring.
McDonald retired days after the survey was released but said his staff had been working to address concerns within the department.
Over the last month, supporters and critics of Wetzel have made their voices heard at Council meetings, on social media and in letters to the editor.
Becher would not say whether she confirmed any accusations against Wetzel before terminating his contract or whether his continuing as chief had simply become untenable in the face of public criticism.
Two weeks ago, councilman and former police chief Chris Walsh asked Becher to request that the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation look into several potentially illegal activities on the part of CPD leadership.
Becher said she had not requested a DCI investigation but that some of the issues raised by Walsh — such as whether officers were being instructed to lie on grant applications — would be addressed by an outside audit of the department expected to conclude in September.
Becher believes any lingering questions about the police department can be addressed by city officials and do not warrant public scrutiny.
“We are doing our jobs, and I just don’t think it’s the media’s role to turn over the stones for us,” she said. “We are addressing — handling — public safety here.”