SEOUL, South Korea — I learned that Casper City Manager V.H. McDonald had announced his retirement as I walked off a plane at the airport here. I am at least trying to be on vacation.
Rumors had begun swirling about the possibility of McDonald stepping down after City Council members received a report from the local lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police early last week — and a Star-Tribune article by my colleague Elise Schmelzer quoted current and former officers complaining about the department — but it appears the decision was not made until Thursday.
McDonald reached retirement eligibility in February, but his decision to step down is still a very big deal.
He’s widely respected among Council members, and his steady handle on financial issues was especially appreciated as the city slashed almost 40 percent from its budget last year and continued to navigate murky economic waters.
McDonald shied away from the spotlight, but all indications are that those who work closely with him like him quite well personally, in addition to respecting his professional abilities.
In some respects, McDonald offers a sharp contrast to predecessor John Patterson — for whom he worked as an assistant city manager — whose term was marred by various scandals.
Patterson waded into Council politics — feuding with then-councilman Craig Hedquist — in a way McDonald never came close to.
“I would say V.H. does not see his role as to be a part of politics. I think he sees that as the Council’s job and his job is to bring options to us,” Mayor Kenyne Humphrey told me. “His outlook might be different than some of the other city managers.”
But the city manager’s job inevitably involves some politics.
In McDonald’s case, he was saddled with handling the fallout from Patterson’s appointment of Jim Wetzel — who rose straight from sergeant to chief — to lead the police department. Whatever Patterson’s logic in making the appointment, bypassing senior members of the command staff raised some eyebrows, both in and outside the department.
In the end, it was McDonald who had to handle internal department discord.
The FOP survey faults McDonald for not taking sufficient action after members of the command staff met with him about a year ago to complain about Wetzel’s leadership.
McDonald said the city was, in fact, responding to the complaints — and that those members of the command staff didn’t reach out again following the initial meeting.
The point, though, is that it fell to the city manager to negotiate a fraught departmental feud. It’s hard to do that without taking some kind of bold action.
As Council looks to find a replacement for McDonald, members will need to balance the desire for a skilled technocrat who can oversee the budget, manage the city’s day-to-day operations and work on long-term projects — 99 percent of what the job entails — while keeping in the mind that whoever takes the job will also need to manage personalities within the city and be ready to throw down the hammer when necessary.
That’s a tall order.
Council has been relatively conservative in its actions this year and it might initially seem likely that its members will want to simply continue along the path laid by McDonald.
But knowing that the next city manager will — among many other things — need to take some kind of assertive action related to the police department throws a big question mark into the search.
The Council’s decision to pursue a different type of leader — or not — may hinge on whether they end up faulting McDonald’s administration for the strife within the police department.