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Business leaders asked for calm at City Hall. Then the former police chief alleged a coup.

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“What is going on with City Council?” — Tad True

Tony Cercy stood with his arms crossed. In front of him at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Cary Brus took the podium.

“The private sector does not have a lot of confidence in the current Casper government and leadership,” Brus said.

Recent issues at City Hall, Brus made clear, were imperiling an otherwise positive economic outlook.

Brus heads McMurry Companies. Cercy sold Power Services Inc. last spring and has since poured millions of dollars into developing downtown Casper.

He stepped forward next.

Cercy said he had recently been in Denver to pitch development in Casper to Colorado investors. It went poorly.

“What’s going on with your City Council?” was the first question he was asked.

“It goes all the way to Denver,” Cercy said.

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Tony Cercy

Tony Cercy, owner of Power Service Inc., poses for a portrait last year outside the offices of Power Services Inc. Cercy was one of several business leaders who say the recent tumult at City Hall has discouraged investment in Casper.

Brus and Cercy were supportive of the city’s direction and thanked Council members for their service. But they wanted to see stability. For the sake of the economy.

They were also confused. So was Tad True of True Oil.

“What is going on with the City Council?” True asked.

His concern centered on what he called a divide among Council members that was spilling into the public.

“Whether it was intentional or not, a divide in City Council became apparent,” True said.

The frequent leaks to the media and certain public statements by officials were making the city look as though it were in turmoil. The businessmen just wanted calm.

“Please be more professional. Be more deliberate. Be more patient in your language and your actions,” Brus said.

Yet 20 minutes later, Brus and the other executives were back on their feet applauding the former police chief, Jim Wetzel, who had just claimed he was the victim of a coup enabled by city officials.

***

“This has been a display of political cowardice unlike anything I’ve ever seen.” — Jim Wetzel

In a city like Casper, where politicians often lavish praise on private-sector leaders, there wasn’t much that could have topped the withering comments from Brus, Cercy and True. But the decorated Iraq War veteran with a chiseled jaw, cowboy boots and righteous indignation managed to steal the show.

It was the first City Council meeting since Wetzel was dismissed as chief two weeks ago. While the police issue wasn’t on the agenda, anyone can address Council members at the end of their meetings. This was his chance to regain control of the narrative.

“I’ve silently accepted being subjected to repeated public flogging and tar-and-feathering without any ability to give my voice,” Wetzel said.

However, Wetzel had been asked to give his side of the story multiple times by reporters. The Star-Tribune broke a story in early April revealing deep discontent within the Casper Police Department. Before that article — which was based on interviews with current and former officers — was going to be published, Mayor Kenyne Humphrey agreed to provide the newspaper a copy of an unsigned survey conducted by the local lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police that put hard numbers to the discontent and included dozens of comments criticizing Wetzel’s leadership.

Wetzel sat down for an interview to discuss the claims before the newspaper published the story.

“When you seek to adjust or shift a prior culture, it’s expected that will come with resistance from those who don’t want to shift,” he told a reporter.

Members of local media organizations meet every morning at the Hall of Justice with police and sheriff spokesmen to receive crime reports.

The week after the FOP survey was released, Wetzel stopped by the CPD media briefing and spoke at length with reporters. Wetzel, who was promoted from sergeant to chief in 2014, said he was working to address “communication gaps” within the department.

He spoke with the Star-Tribune at least three more times before his contract was terminated.

Two weeks before he was ousted, Wetzel said that he believed he had the support of city leadership, even after Councilwoman Amanda Huckabay had called for his resignation and Humphrey had suggested the same.

“I’m still standing here,” he said.

But Wetzel didn’t claim at Tuesday’s Council meeting that he had lacked an opportunity to weigh in on the attacks while he was chief. Rather, to think that Wetzel as chief could have told his side of the story — really told it — would be to misunderstand the man. At least that’s what he told Council members.

Wetzel described the values he wanted CPD to embody: nobility, dignity, integrity, honesty, respect.

He read from the law enforcement code of ethics.

“I’ve been asked repeatedly why I’ve not stood up to defend myself against the unending daily and weekly onslaught of despicable character assassination,” Wetzel said.

“It was never appropriate that as chief of police I throw away the decorum of the office and act in the same contemptible and inexcusable manner of my attackers.”

This was the same Wetzel who showed up for the City Council meeting on the day the FOP survey became public and remained standing, unflinching, as Huckabay read one of the most profane anonymous statements included in the survey.(tncms-asset)2793f60e-6234-53a8-881b-937e5658ed87(/tncms-asset)

“He has made officers more scared of his [expletive] rules... than they are of getting shot,” Huckabay read. “If you’re proactive you have a chance of actually fighting crime and then getting [expletive] by Wetzel’s ‘discipline matrix.’”

Huckabay stared at Wetzel while she read. Wetzel stared back, his expression revealing nothing.

Despite the nature of his comments, Wetzel was not especially emotive while speaking to Council on Tuesday. He was earnest. And he was angry.

Huckabay, he said, read the profane comments “with reprehensible motive to humiliate me.”

That, though, was a sideshow to Wetzel’s real claim: He was undone by “an extended, conspiratorial and malicious character assassination.”

“Isn’t it obvious there is a group of people driven by unconscionable, targeted, hate-filled personal motive?”

Wetzel centered the belief that he was the victim of a coup by the Fraternal Order of Police board on the following chain of events:

The FOP conducts a survey meant to “deliberately trash the chief of police.”

Wetzel discovers the leader of the FOP board was a member of his command staff.

The FOP then holds a vote of no confidence, again using suggestive questioning intended to undermine Wetzel’s authority and includes pages of anonymous and unverified allegations. They provide this information to the media.

A source tells the Star-Tribune about discrepancies between Wetzel’s testimony and that of District Attorney Mike Blonigen in a lawsuit largely unrelated to the police department.

Council members “collude to try and stop and delay” the outside audit of the police department recommended by city staff.

Councilman Chris Walsh writes to Interim City Manager Liz Becher to request the Wyoming Department of Criminal Investigation look into potentially illegal activities taking place at the police department. His letter is provided to the Star-Tribune.

Becher meets with the FOP board in an abandoned building in downtown Casper shortly before terminating Wetzel’s contract.

Becher terminates the contract without allowing Wetzel an opportunity to respond to any of the accusations against him.

***

“It only takes a few parts per million of gasoline, for example, to taint millions of gallons of water.” — Jesse Morgan

While much of what has transpired at the police department and within City Hall over the last few weeks remains secret, the picture Wetzel painted of a coordinated effort to unseat him does not directly contradict much of the known information.

Rather, Wetzel’s lengthy comments largely fill a vacuum left by Becher’s refusal to say why she ousted him as chief and a state law barring supervisors from discussing specific personnel issues.

Other claims he made are subjective and impossible to verify — for example, that the FOP’s goal was to denigrate Wetzel’s leadership as opposed to honestly gauge its membership’s feelings. A member of the FOP’s executive board declined to comment for this story, explaining the organization was focused on moving forward.

Wetzel is correct that the FOP’s “no confidence” vote offered CPD only employees two choices: They were asked to say whether they were “satisfied” with the direction of the department and Wetzel’s leadership or whether they “have lost confidence” in Wetzel’s ability to lead the department. There was no option for officers who were, for example, dissatisfied with the direction of the department for reasons other than Wetzel’s leadership.

Three Council members likewise did seek to table the planned external review of the police department to be conducted by the International City-County Management Association. The members who supported putting it on hold were Humphrey, Walsh and Councilman Shawn Johnson — and those three had in fact been especially vocal about Wetzel’s leadership following the FOP survey.

But Humphrey, Walsh and Johnson also qualify as some of the more fiscally conservative members of Council, and they seemed more concerned with the audit’s $63,000 price tag than with the possibility that it might affirm Wetzel’s leadership style.

It was Jesse Morgan, who has been relatively quiet on questions over the CPD’s future, who actually suggested relying exclusively on the FOP’s report.

“Thought I’d vote no with the FOP survey because we had enough information,” he said at the time. But Morgan had asked around, and the International City-County Management Association had received rave reviews. He voted in favor of it.(tncms-asset)d2713bbe-f548-11e6-b8b5-00163ec2aa77(/tncms-asset)

And Huckabay spoke in favor of moving forward with the audit, despite being more critical of Wetzel than anyone else on Council.

“As time goes on, it becomes less clear to know what’s going on,” she said. “We owe it to officers and the community to find truth with an independent lens.”

Wetzel also made a handful of assertions — that Becher failed to allow him to respond to the allegations and covertly met with FOP leadership — that are impossible to verify given the city manager’s reluctance to discuss what led to Wetzel’s dismissal.

Becher appeared pained during Wetzel’s speech at City Council. She looked toward the ceiling. She flexed her fingers.

“I’m proud of you,” Humphrey told her at the end of the meeting. “It was a hard decision, but you had guts and you did everything you could.”

Becher didn’t respond to any of Wetzel’s claims at the meeting, and she declined to address them to the Star-Tribune. But there were other things Wetzel omitted from his defense on Tuesday night, things Becher had previously mentioned.

For example, soon after becoming interim manager she announced the existence of an internal investigation into personnel issues at the police department being conducted by local attorney Judith Studer.

Becher received a draft of the Studer investigation the same week she terminated Wetzel’s contract and said “elements of it” played a role in that decision.

That investigation was started last fall, well before the alleged campaign waged before City Council and in the press that Wetzel was so indignant about. He did not mention that investigation in his comments.

And while the “no confidence” vote may have featured what Wetzel described as a leading question, the FOP survey included straightforward queries with answers showing serious frustration regarding the CPD administration.

Over 50 percent of CPD employees thought they were supervised too much by the administration, and around 65 percent thought the expectations of the administration were unrealistic.

Wetzel pointed to this as proof that officers simply didn’t want to be held accountable. But he overlooked the survey questions that showed most were comfortable with oversight in general but chafed at interference from top leadership.

“Immediate supervisor’s expectations are realistic,” one anonymous officer wrote. “What is handed down to them from the chief is at times unclear or shows how little value he holds on the individual patrol officer.”(tncms-asset)435ec426-3ca8-11e7-ac21-00163ec2aa77(/tncms-asset)

Nor did Wetzel offer a specific motive for the alleged coup by the FOP board. He framed his termination as a battle between good and evil: The FOP was wicked and deceitful, and he was honorable in the face of entrenched problems at the department.

“Every decision I made was moral, ethical and legal and meant in the purest of heart to strengthen this community’s police department,” Wetzel said.

In contrast, the FOP members and the anonymous officers who slung accusations at Wetzel were simply bad police officers, if not bad people, he said. Some used crude language. One said that police and civilians are inherent enemies. Wetzel found that unacceptable.

But why would they engage in a coordinated and unwarranted attack on Wetzel?

Aside from him demanding more integrity from reluctant officers — a broad concept for which Wetzel offered no examples — the closest he came to a motive was this: There was a “chronic, pervasive problem of displacement in the police department that was indicative of their ingrained and embattled culture.”

Wetzel met with the mayor, vice mayor and city manager last fall, he said, and explained these problems and his efforts to address them — efforts that would take time.

“How quickly an anonymous, inflammatory publicly released survey demanding action from you erased your memories,” he said.

But Casper has a new mayor, vice mayor and city manager. Some of them may have been at that leadership meeting in their previous capacity, but almost half of City Council was replaced following the November elections.

Wetzel didn’t acknowledge any of that.

***

“I will give him credit, he is highly intelligent and a master orator.” — anonymous Casper police officer

Wetzel and his supporters at the meeting were right to note that a narrative has developed since the FOP survey was released. Comments on social media have castigated the chief, Council members have been reluctant to defend him — even if they stopped short of calling for his resignation — and Becher hesitated to say whether she had confidence in his leadership before terminating his contract.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the media was also criticized for covering turmoil at the police department in a way that Wetzel’s supporters found unfavorable.

“I wonder if any of you watched the media impanel a grand jury,” one woman told Council. “Perception is reality as evidenced by the truly incredible smear campaign we’ve seen.”

But perception is a double-edged sword.(tncms-asset)13ed7164-3ca9-11e7-8c1c-00163ec2aa77(/tncms-asset)

By the time Wetzel finished speaking, it wasn’t only the energy executives — the same ones who had just called for calm — who were on their feet applauding. Nearly the entire packed chamber was standing for the former chief. Many had clearly come to support Wetzel. But others, including one man who approached the podium to talk about other issues like parking, clapped and thanked him.

Vice Mayor Ray Pacheco, who had sat on the fence during most of the debate over Wetzel’s future at the police department, finally joined with those angry at City Council and Becher.

Pacheco had called for restraint in addressing the issues at CPD, but only in the broadest of terms: wait for evidence, ensure decisions are made objectively, don’t be hasty.

But now he was distraught. City Council was failing Casper residents, he said. He should have spoken out more forcefully against ousting Wetzel.

Whether it was the power of the former chief’s words, the passion of his supporters that night or simply bottled-up feelings that Pacheco had not had the courage — that’s his word — to share up until now, the councilman sought penance before the crowded room.

“I didn’t stand up... as a human being and as a person that understands that the Wetzels are human and and that they have feelings and they have struggled,” Pacheco said. “If I have failed in anything as a Council member, it is that I didn’t stand stronger to say: ‘We need to be more diligent.’”

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State Politics Reporter

Arno Rosenfeld covers state politics including the Legislature and Wyoming’s D.C. delegation, focusing especially on the major issues facing the Cowboy State like economic diversification and what it means to be the most conservative state in the nation.

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