Six of the eight Casper City Council members say city management never told them about problems brewing at the police department.
Many said they had been aware of discontent at the department through personal interactions with department employees. However, they did not know the extent of the issue until last week, when they read a survey conducted by the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police. Many of the 84 officers and civilian employees who took the survey criticized police Chief Jim Wetzel’s leadership and said city management did nothing after hearing their concerns.
About 20 employees — or 14 percent of the department’s 144-person staff — said they were actively looking for work elsewhere, while more said they would look for another job if circumstances would allow.
Councilman Shawn Johnson criticized city management’s failure to deal with morale issues at the police department in an email forwarded to media late Wednesday. He wrote that the city manager’s office had “failed” the Council, the city and city employees by not addressing the concerns of police department employees.
“In a city manager form of government, we are supposed to rely on the city manager to take care of issues like this and if he doesn’t take care of them to our satisfaction, we have the option of firing him,” Johnson wrote in the email, which was sent to all Council members about two hours before he sent it to media. “What if the city manager and his upper level staff not only not do anything about the problem but even conceal it? As a council, WE are ultimately responsible for what happens in this city, when issues like this happen, who does the public look to?.....THEY LOOK TO US!”
“I cannot sit idly by when a city department is absolutely falling apart and I have employees and constituents begging me for help,” he said. “I do agree we need to be professional but it doesn’t mean we need to be blind, bound and gagged.”
City Manager V.H. McDonald, who announced his retirement two days after the survey was released, said Thursday afternoon that he did not tell Council about the problems because it was a personnel issue, which is his responsibility to manage.
McDonald said that hypothetically a personnel issue could’ve arisen that would’ve prompted him to talk with Council, but he declined to define what factors would play into that decision. He said he would have to review the concerns on a case-by-case basis.
The issues within the police department apparently did not reach that level.
“Obviously I had not gone to Council about any personnel issues,” he said.
Councilman Bob Hopkins and Vice Mayor Ray Pacheco did not return reporters’ calls Thursday. Council normally has nine members, but Todd Murphy resigned last week, citing personal issues.
The local lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, which conducted the survey, also condemned McDonald for not acting on any of the complaints brought to his office. In a memo attached to the survey, the organization said that members of the department’s command staff met with McDonald to express their concerns with the chief but said that no action was ever taken. Multiple officers in the survey and in interviews with the Star-Tribune said they communicated their concerns to the city’s human resources department but that nothing happened.
In an interview Thursday morning, Johnson said various officers have approached him sporadically over the past few years to share concerns about the department. But he said he didn’t know about the survey or the depths of the problem until the night it was discussed at Council. City management never told him about issues at the department, he said.
“The problem we ran into here is that we were never told about the issue and it was just left to fester,” Johnson said.
Mayor Kenyne Humphrey and Councilman Chris Walsh, who was police chief before Wetzel, both echoed Johnson’s comments. While they had talked to individuals with concerns in the past year, city management never approached them with the issue. They said they weren’t aware of the depth of the problem until reading the survey.
Councilman Jesse Morgan had the same story: He hadn’t heard of problems within the police department until he received the survey last week, after it had been released to the Star-Tribune. He said he had not heard anything from city management about any issues brewing under Wetzel’s command.
“I don’t feel I’ve been adequately informed,” Morgan said Thursday morning. “I feel that (we) haven’t been adequately informed in the way that we should.”
Councilman Charlie Powell said that while he also didn’t know about the survey until it was released to Council members, it would have been inappropriate for Council to be aware of personnel matters in the police department.
“I think what people struggle with is in the mayor-management form of government, the lines of authority are very clearly laid out in statute,” he said. “Some people have difficulty with how that statute is written, but it makes it very clear that members of Council are not to be involved in personnel matters involving city employees.”
Powell added that had city management approached the Council asking for help on how to handle the situation, then that would have been “a role for Council to play.”
In the “council-manager” form of government, the city manager oversees all employees besides himself, the city attorney and municipal judges. City attorney Bill Luben previously told the Star-Tribune that Council is charged with setting broad policy goals and hiring a city manager whom they trust to handle day-to-day operations. He said that Council’s primary tool for managing city personnel would be to replace the city manager.
State public records law says that personnel files are not public except to “the duly elected and appointed officials who supervise the work of the person in interest.”
The policy keeping Council from investigating personnel matters has tied Council’s hands, Johnson said. Both he and Humphrey said they wanted to get a second legal opinion on how much Council members can know.
Morgan said that means city management has to take the lead in situations such as this.
“After that, it’s the responsibility of the city manager, which is appointed by City Council, to look into personnel issues,” he said.
The mayor said that some members of Council were recently given basic information about complaints from police department employees to city human resources. She said that there had been between 35 and 50 complaints from the department in the last seven months, though she doesn’t know the substance of those complaints.
Walsh said that communication between Council and city management has been “guarded” since the survey and that there has been little substantive communication.
Internal Council disputes
In his email, Johnson also criticized fellow Council members for releasing the survey to the Star-Tribune before all Council members or the police chief had a copy. Morgan echoed that criticism.
“Releasing the survey to the media was a poor choice, and I don’t think it should’ve happened,” he said. “It should’ve gone to V.H. (McDonald) and said, ‘Have you seen this, did you know about it, and more importantly what are you going to do about it?’”
Mayor Humphrey said members of the Fraternal Order of Police approached her and asked to speak to the entire council about the survey during an executive session. However, when she took that request to the city attorney and the city manager, she said that they told her that the organization didn’t meet the requirements necessary to officially present during an executive session.
Humphrey defended her decision to release the survey before all Council members had a copy and said she felt the survey needed to become public so the issues could be addressed.
“It may not have been the best decision, but it brought to light a serious issue,” she said.
Councilwoman Amanda Huckabay said that the Council discussed how to improve internal communications at its strategic planning sessions earlier this week.
“That’s very important to us at this critical juncture, because we have a lot of work ahead of us,” she said. “We as a Council need to work diligently to address our situation and improve the climate for our valuable employees.”
Johnson contradicted what the police chief told media Wednesday morning. Wetzel told reporters from every news outlet in the city that he had never been contacted by representatives of the Fraternal Order of Police and that he had yet to receive an official copy of the survey from the city or the organization.
Johnson said that members of the Fraternal Order of Police told him that they attempted to talk with the chief several times and that he refused. He also said Wetzel was given the opportunity to pick up his copy of the report from the city manager’s office but never did.
Wetzel picked up his copy of the survey on Wednesday afternoon from the city manager’s office, a police spokesman wrote in an email sent Thursday morning after Johnson’s email was made public.
Powell urged calm among city leadership. He said he took Wetzel at his word when the chief said he was taking the survey and the complaints therein seriously.
“I think we all need to take a deep breath,” he said. “The Council has several challenges. One involving the replacement of a Council member, one involving the hiring of a city manager. And we need to go about that in a serious manner and we need to find someone who is competent and knowledgeable to deal with whatever problems are in the department.”