Casper City Council members were not involved in appointing Liz Becher interim city manager, despite a city news release that said the decision was made by council leadership.
Becher’s appointment has caused confusion among several Council members, including Mayor Kenyne Humphrey, who said they had no idea who made the decision to install Becher to temporarily fill in for City Manager V.H. McDonald.
McDonald announced last week that he would retire June 1. He will be on vacation most of the time until then.
McDonald, in a text message sent to the Star-Tribune, said he “had Liz be Acting City Manager” in his absence, a move that he said happened regularly prior to his appointment.
In an interview with Star-Tribune on Thursday afternoon, Becher said the policy of the city manager appointing a temporary replacement is an “unwritten policy.”
“We’ve seen it done through multiple managers and multiple assistants,” she said.
Technically, she said, McDonald appointed her April 6, but the Council will officially appoint her in a meeting before June 1, she said, calling it “an absolute technicality.” Becher said Thursday afternoon that she’s spoken with all of Council and that they said they support her appointment.
As for any confusion brought on by the release calling her “interim city manager,” which implies that McDonald is gone and the Council is actively searching for a replacement, Becher said there was “conscious thought” put into calling her that. Calling her interim rather than acting enables her to make more serious decisions.
McDonald told the Star-Tribune on Thursday that he was on vacation and wasn’t sure how long it would last. He said he’ll maintain a “sporadic” schedule at city hall.
McDonald’s decision to retire came shortly after the local lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police released a survey that showed significant dissatisfaction and low employee morale within the Casper Police Department. The survey laid much of the blame on Chief Jim Wetzel, but it was also critical of McDonald for not taking meaningful action to address problems the survey claims he was aware of. The majority of Council members say city management did not inform them about problems at the police department.
Some Council members were under the impression that council leadership decided to appoint Becher. The release announcing McDonald’s retirement and Becher’s appointment said council leadership chose Becher, which Humphrey has denied.
The confusion is further compounded by a Wyoming statute, cited by Councilwoman Amanda Huckabay, which states that if the city manager position “is vacant for any reason, the governing body shall immediately proceed to employ another person. If there is a delay in securing a new manager, the governing body shall immediately appoint an acting manager to fill the vacancy on an interim basis.”
It’s unclear if that applies in this situation, given that McDonald is still manager and Becher is serving in an acting capacity while he is away, apparently until his retirement in June. City Attorney Bill Luben did not return messages left Thursday.
Councilman Charlie Powell said that the city has never had a city manager vacancy without the city manager appointing an acting person to fill the role. He said that policy might be detailed in the city manager job description, but the document, obtained by the Star-Tribune through a public records request, makes no mention of the manager’s duty to install a temporary replacement.
Powell said if it isn’t in the job description, then it was at least an established practice.
McDonald told Council leadership at a lunch meeting that he would retire, but Councilmen Jesse Morgan and Shawn Johnson said Thursday morning that they didn’t hear about McDonald’s retirement until after the city sent out a news release at 5 p.m.
Morgan was dismayed that the entirety of the Council did not play a part in appointing Becher and that he did not hear about it or McDonald’s retirement for several hours.
“Obviously, it was concerning and really kind of unbelievable that could even happen,” he added. “We’re supposed to be a team here. Things are solved through communication and not behind closed doors.”
He said it was his understanding that Council leadership made that decision, citing the release, which states that “Becher was appointed by Council Leadership to serve as Interim City Manager during the transition.”
If the decision had been made by a handful of Council members, he said, then Council leadership cut the rest of the members out of the process.
“If you’re going to say that this is the person who’s going to take over in the meantime and the decision was made by council leadership, that’s not how things are done,” Morgan said. “Just because they’re the council leadership, they’re the same as every other council member. They’re appointed to represent us.”
But Mayor Humphrey, who is listed as the contact for the release announcing McDonald’s retirement and Becher’s appointment, told the Star-Tribune on Thursday that she did not play a role in appointing Becher. She said she left the meeting before that decision was made and was not sure who appointed Becher.
Vice Mayor Ray Pacheco, who is also part of council leadership and is listed as the other contact on the release, did not return messages left Thursday morning.
Councilman Chris Walsh told the Star-Tribune that he doesn’t know who appointed Becher and is not sure who was at the meeting when that was decided.
In an email sent to council members and forwarded to the media Wednesday night, Councilman Shawn Johnson said he learned about McDonald’s retirement through Facebook and added that he did not know who appointed Becher.
“Then a couple of council members (I’m not sure who) decided to appoint Liz Becher as interim city manager without going to council first,” he wrote, adding that appointing a city manager is the purview of the entire council.
But Powell, who says he was in the meeting when McDonald announced his resignation, echoed what McDonald told the Star-Tribune: It was McDonald who appointed Becher. Powell said council leadership does not have the ability to select someone to take the city manager position while McDonald was away.
Asked if the confusion indicated that some council members weren’t aware that only the city manager can appoint a temporary replacement, Powell said he hadn’t had any conversations with other council members about it.
“Councilman Johnson is clearly under the impression that the mayor was involved in that decision,” he said. “I was at the mayor-manager meeting when V.H. McDonald submitted his resignation, and it was following that meeting that he assigned Liz Becher to function as the acting city manager because he was going on leave.
“And that has happened on every other occasion that the city manager has been gone. Because somebody has to run the city.”
Morgan said “things have to change” and communication among city leaders has to be improved. Leadership has “step up to the plate” to address the situation, he said.