Even V.H. McDonald, a man not given to superlatives, acknowledges that what’s taken place at Casper City Hall over the last three weeks is not quite normal.
“It’s pretty extraordinary,” McDonald said.
McDonald recalled the Thursday three weeks ago when, after less than a day of deliberation, he ended his nearly 20 years of employment with the city of Casper.
McDonald, then city manager, was meeting with his deputies and City Council leadership.
“I said, ‘I think it’s just time I retire and here’s my letter, mayor,’” he said.
It was, attendees say, a charged moment.
“There was hesitation, I felt,” said Interim City Manager Liz Becher.
McDonald, however, said he’d made up his mind before the meeting.
Two days earlier, the local lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police delivered a survey to Council members outlining low morale among many Casper police officers and questioning the leadership of Chief Jim Wetzel. At the Council meeting that night, Councilwoman Amanda Huckabay read out a profane attack on Wetzel from the survey while the chief stared on from the back of the room.
Humphrey and Chris Walsh, a former police chief who was elected to Council in November, called for investigations into the FOP’s allegations. Walsh wanted the investigation to include city management’s handling of the police department. The survey claimed city officials had mishandled complaints made by senior CPD staff months earlier.
The next day, McDonald said that he had no plans to step down. But he lamented the attacks and that people never noticed the good work coming out of his office — strong financial stewardship during the economic downturn, for one.
“It’s very hard, if you’re in this position,” McDonald said. “It’s very hard.”
But the origins of the recent tumult at City Hall start prior to the survey’s release. For answers, observers point to both McDonald’s predecessor and to Casper’s model of government, which limits the power of elected officials.
A problem from Patterson?
“I think a lot of this has to do with John Patterson, and V.H. tried his best to clean up some of the messes,” said local businessman and state representative Pat Sweeney.
McDonald was serving as assistant city manager in 2014 when Patterson, his boss, bypassed more senior candidates to select Wetzel, a sergeant who had earned the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps Reserves, as chief.
“I believe that was Patterson putting his stamp on the police department and getting somebody with loyalty to him and not to any previous police chief,” said former Councilman Keith Goodenough.
The question of loyalty came up in a lawsuit by another former councilman, Craig Hedquist, alleging that Patterson attempted to sabotage his political career including by enlisting the help of the police department. Hedquist had attacked city management over public spending and once called the city engineer a “b——.”
According to depositions and phone call transcripts included in the lawsuit, Patterson asked first Walsh and then Wetzel to use law enforcement databases to look up information he believed would disqualify Hedquist from remaining on Council.
Two senior CPD officers who lost out on the chief position said Patterson had, in a move that confused them at the time, brought up Hedquist during the interview process.
“I think Mr. Patterson saw Chief Wetzel as a more willing ally in some activity that certainly I had expressed that we wouldn’t be involved in, namely conflict with Councilman Hedquist,” Brad Wnuk, a lieutenant at the time, said in his deposition.
Wetzel did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the Star-Tribune. In his own deposition, Wetzel said that Patterson had not asked about Hedquist during his interview for chief but acknowledged that after securing the job Patterson asked him to use law enforcement databases to look up information related to Hedquist. Wetzel said that he did not share any information with Patterson.
Walsh, who is being sued by Hedquist, has denied doing anything improper and said he did not conspire with Patterson against Hedquist.
The Star-Tribune was unable to reach Patterson through attorney John Masterson, who represented him during the suit, which was dismissed earlier this month. Masterson told the newspaper he believed Patterson, who retired in 2015, was out of the country.
In contrast to Patterson, McDonald appeared to have no interest in playing politics with the police department or anything else.
“V.H. does not see his role as to be a part of politics,” Humphrey said shortly before his retirement. “His outlook might be different than some of the other city managers.”
But politics found McDonald.
After McDonald announced his retirement but while he was still working for the city, Councilman Shawn Johnson questioned his handling of the police department matter.
Johnson was concerned that McDonald had abused the council-manager form of government, in which an elected council restricted to setting high-level policy hires a manager to run city operations, including personnel matters.
“What if the city manager and his upper level staff not only not do anything about the problem but even conceal it?” Johnson wrote in an email to Council members. “The city manager’s office has absolutely failed us, failed the city and failed the employees.”
The next day the public learned McDonald was on an open-ended vacation and four days after that, on April 17, Humphrey and Pacheco requested that McDonald make his retirement immediate — six weeks earlier than expected.
Huckabay sees recent events as the result of a more assertive Council, which included four new members seated in January, until Councilman Todd Murphy resigned in early April citing personal reasons.
She said that where Councils past may have been content to rubber-stamp the city manager’s advice, she and Walsh wanted to bring debates over the direction of the city, and the police department, into the open.
“It was just more conflict than he was willing to handle when the new Council came on,” Huckabay said. “I don’t feel like V.H.’s personality and demeanor were well-suited for that position at all.”
But some more senior members of Council have proven reluctant to jump on board with the criticism of Wetzel and city management and see McDonald’s retirement as unfortunate.
Councilman Charlie Powell said McDonald has successfully overseen the city’s finances during difficult financial times and was unfairly brought down by criticism over issues like the police department.
“There’s just been a real failure, in my opinion, as far as the community recognition of what he has contributed,” Powell said.
McDonald said it’s not true that he was unwilling or unable to handle issues at the police department or to work with a more assertive Council. He is aware of his “strong points” but understood what the job entailed in its entirety when he took it.
“I’m not averse to conflict,” McDonald said. “I’m not averse to taking actions that need to be taken.”
Perhaps the most strident defender of McDonald’s management style on Council is Bob Hopkins, a retired mining engineer now in his second term.
At the same meeting that Council approved McDonald’s immediate retirement, Hopkins defended municipal leadership.
“I remain in full support of Mr. McDonald: his leadership, dedication and his policies,” he said.
Hopkins has declined to read the FOP survey about complaints at the police department and pointedly left an executive session of Council last week when the talk turned to what he considered inappropriate matters.
“The chief doesn’t work for us, nor do any of the folks who work in the P.D.,” Hopkins said. “I don’t have an ax to grind with them at all, but I don’t deal with the FOP.”
Hopkins said Council took sufficient action on the police issue when it commissioned an external audit of the department this month. Results are expected in September.
More or less, that’s McDonald’s position as well.
Facing criticism for allowing problems at the police department to fester, he argues that he was taking assertive action by working to develop a strategic plan for the department and recommending the external review. McDonald added that the department had been lacking direction — an issue he had prioritized addressing.
Becher revealed Friday that there were also at least two internal city investigations into issues at CPD, apparently launched under McDonald’s oversight, being conducted by the legal and human resources departments. She said those investigations had been going on for several months and would be completed within the next two weeks.
“I was walking down the path of objectively looking at all sides of issues concerning Chief Wetzel,” McDonald said.
When asked Friday, McDonald declined to say whether Wetzel retained his confidence as chief.
Manager as ‘god’
With city officials insisting they have been proactively addressing concerns among CPD employees and some Council members and anonymous police officers disputing that, former councilman Goodenough believes the public is witnessing a flaw in Casper’s form of government.
“It shows the weakness of the city manager system,” Goodenough said.
Barring elected officials from dealing with daily city operations is intended to insulate municipal governments from political meddling, a big concern around the turn of the 20th century when the council-manager system became popular.
Tom Forslund, who served 22 years as Casper city manager, said that councils needed to speak with one voice, limiting the impact of individual members.
“A council member has all the right in the world to speak up and advocate,” Forslund said. “But ultimately it’s the council as a group that gets together in a formal session and establishes policies.”
And even when they do speak with one voice — or a majority vote — the Casper City Council is limited in the instruction it can give to the manager.
Local attorney Don Fuller said Casper’s form of government was an impediment to accountability. The manager can point to a lack of direction from Council, and Council members can point to a lack of action from the manager.
Ultimately, Fuller said, the limitations on what Council can do beyond hiring a good city manager render it impotent.
“There’s no checks and balances within the system — that’s just saying, ‘We appoint a god,’” he said. “Why would we even have a city council if they have no authority over the mandates of the city manager? What do they think they can do?”
City Attorney Bill Luben has advised Council that they have no authority to interfere with personnel matters outside of the employees they directly oversee: the city manager, the city attorney and municipal judges.
Advising the city manager on how to handle issues at the police department, in other words, is outside of their legal purview.
Not everyone is sure Luben is correct that Council cannot discuss the effectiveness of department heads with the manager.
“Show me the statute that you’re relying on to make that statement,” said attorney Dallas Laird.
Laird, who is currently suing the city over how it sentences minors in alcohol possession cases, said it’s possible Luben’s interpretation is correct but that Council members shouldn’t be so quick to accept it.
“The problem is they hand out laymen these different options and for some reason people just buy into them,” Laird said.
Luben wasn’t available for comment on Friday, but state statutes restrict at least the disclosure of personnel files to “the duly elected and appointed officials who supervise his work.” The law also makes clear that the city manager, not city council, employs departmental staff including the police chief.
Luben previously declined to answer whether Council members were prohibited from sharing their opinions on city employees with the manager, saying he needed to discuss the matter with his client.
In the email to his colleagues, Councilman Johnson expressed frustration with the legal advice being given to Council.
“I can’t imagine that it’s not ok for council to comment on a situation such as a city department crumbling from within!” Johnson wrote.
A divided Council
Huckabay said Council members are trying to become more assertive, agreeing in their goal-setting meetings this month that city departments should be asked to report specific metrics on a regular basis so that members can offer informed policy feedback to the city manager.
“It’s absolutely within our realm of oversight to have measurable outcomes,” she said.
One challenge will be setting those outcomes and deciding what direction to give the city administrator if they aren’t met. On the police issue, at least, Huckabay outlined the breakdown she sees on Council. In favor of fast reform are herself, Walsh, Johnson and Humphrey. In opposition is Hopkins, with Powell “on the fence” and Pacheco supposedly so concerned with running for higher office in the future that he is worried about making any waves.
While he ran unsuccessfully for the state Legislature in November, Pacheco disputed that he’s basing Council decisions on anything other than the best interest of the city — including the prospect of changes at CPD.
“I’m disappointed and saddened that she thinks that,” he said. “I’m not on the fence, but I’m very objective and it takes time. We’re dealing with some very big stuff.”
Powell said he would like to hold off on any big changes at the police department until Casper has a permanent city manager who can make decisions according to a long-term vision for the city.
“Chief Wetzel has been chief for three years,” Powell said. “If these problems are not evaluated for another several months as we’re recruiting for the city manager, I don’t see how that causes any problems for anyone.”
In contrast, Huckabay said Wetzel should resign.
Becher, the interim city manager, has announced that she does not want to be considered for the permanent position.
Becher said in an interview Friday that she had no intention of firing Wetzel based on the information she had at her disposal after three days on the job. While Becher previously served as an assistant city manager, human resources — including any issues at CPD — were not in her portfolio and she is trying to come up to speed while juggling all the other duties of her new position.
Whether there is anything Wetzel can do to restore confidence in his leadership of the police department is the question she is most interested in answering, Becher said.
“I still think that Wetzel and leadership are good people,” she said.
Becher is awaiting the results of the city’s internal investigations as well as meeting with individual officers and studying what internal information exists about issues at the department.
She emphasized the importance of basing her decisions on evidence from investigations and consulting with her executive team and acknowledged she’s still learning.
“There’s not some written rules that suddenly get laid on my desk for this,” she said.
Becher said she has faith that Wetzel will resign if his position becomes untenable but hopes that will not be necessary.
Overall, Becher said the turmoil at the police department was not holding back an otherwise smooth transition following McDonald’s exit.
“We’re in good shape,” she said. “We have been doing just fine out of this office trying not to let anything fall through the cracks.”
Council members are taking a similar approach.
Walsh said Council’s current job was to fill Murphy’s open seat, find a new city manager, create a budget, handle Council’s standard business — and find a way to address issues at CPD.
“There’s clearly a lot going on,” he said. “Nothing can be put on the back burner.”