The Casper City Council was hit with a volley of criticism Tuesday night, from a number of places. During the comment period of May 16th’s regular council session, the city leaders were addressed by both the former Chief of Police and by several business owners in Natrona County.
Asking for special permission to go over the standard 5-minute time limit, which was unanimously granted by Council, Jim Wetzel, the former chief of the Casper Police Department read a scathing statement to council.
“It is with much trepidation that I come before you today, to speak as a mere citizen of Casper, and I say ‘with trepidation,’ because what I have been witness and victim to over the last several months, in our city government, has been nothing short of frightening,” said Wetzel.
Wetzel’s contract for employment was not renewed by interim City Manager Liz Becher. Becher has given few details pertaining to the separation, but a letter sent to media noted that she “decided to go in a new direction in the leadership of the Casper Police Department.” The separation came after, last month, a Fraternal Order of Police survey was presented to the Council, detailing concerns in leadership and morale at the Casper Police Department. The respondents to the survey were kept anonymous.
Currently, Casper Police Department Captain Steve Schulz is serving as interim Police Chief.
Before public comment at the meeting, Councilperson Charlie Powell addressed the audience in chambers and watching the broadcast at home, hoping to touch on some of the issues that the council felt would be brought up during the public comment period, specifically the decision to not renew Wetzel’s contract.
“I feel personally responsible to explain my actions, since two weeks ago I said we should wait,” Powell said. He went on to explain that, in addition to a controversial survey from the Fraternal Order of Police, Interim City Manager Becher conducted an investigation of her own. “Interim Manager Becher took it upon herself to meet with the officers face-to-face, and did so with diligence and a strong effort to meet with as many as she possibly could. I don’t know the exact numbers, let’s just say it was a significant majority of the sworn and non-sworn officers.”
Powell went on to say that what Interim Manager Becher heard from the officers ultimately factored into the decision about Wetzel. However, he went on to point out that what was heard was a personnel matter and would not be disclosed publicly.
The decision gained praise from several members of Council, including former police chief and current City Councilperson Chris Walsh. Walsh said he supported Interim Manager Becher’s decision, but also voiced support for Wetzel. “A lot of things have happened. I do believe things came to a point where they couldn’t be repaired within the police department. I want everybody to know this, though. Jim Wetzel has served this city for eighteen years and for a lot of times when 9-1-1 rang, he was the one that showed up. I know him personally, of course we worked together for a long time. Don’t let me get this misinterpreted- I support what Liz had to do, but I also support him. He served this country and he served this city.”
Most present members of council voiced similar support for Interim Manager Becher’s decision, except for the Vice Mayor. Closing out the regular session of the council meeting, Vice Mayor Ray Pacheco said that he felt that in hindsight he should have urged the council more strongly to exercise restraint.
“I believed that, when I became a council member, I was going to come in and sweepingly make great change, positive change, and doing something for our community. Unfortunately, I think I have failed in that,” Pacheco said. “”I think to be courageous is to stand before your electorate and your constituents to say ‘you know what, we haven’t done what we said we’re going to do.’ I know there are council members here that will disagree with me. I know there are members on this council that say we’re doing really good things, and parts are. But unfortunately there is a large sector of our constituents that believe that we are not doing what we should be doing.”
Pacheco then explained that he had originally urged the council to practice restraint and patience in the matter of the Police Department. “I still hold that true that we should have waited. Where the courage part comes in, is that I didn’t express that more strongly.”
“We unfortunately live in a world of immediate gratification,” Wetzel said in his statement. “Because of that one only has to make and it will stick. Some people refer to it as ‘fake news.’ Within this realm wicked individuals only have to be the first to sling an accusation, whether there is any truth to it at all, and they already have half of their denigrating battle won.”
Council also received criticism from several Casper Business leaders, approaching the podium as a group.
Carrie Brus, president and CEO of the McMurry Companies, spoke on behalf of the group, saying that they were not pleased with the actions of city leadership. “One of the most important factors influencing private sector business and job creation is the confidence investors, and potential new employees, have in the community they’re entering. The young professionals we work to attract to Casper, to come to work- they’re smart. They’re weighing their options. Whether or not they want to live in Bozeman or Billings or Denver or the Front Range or Casper. They research the cities they want to reside in and they read the papers.”
Brus went on to explain that the ability to attract a needed talent pool is predicated on predictability and confidence. He also explained that the lack of predictability and confidence was also, according to Brus, affecting Casper’s overall philanthropic climate as well. “Your actions and your behavior can encourage philanthropy or discourage it. So here’s my suggestion- Respectfully, please be more professional. Be more deliberate. Be more patient in your language and your actions. People are watching you.”
The Casper City Council concluded the meeting by meeting for a closed-door executive session, to discuss personnel matters. The Council will next meet, for a specially scheduled Regular Session, on Friday. During that meeting, members of council will interview replacements for a seat on council left vacant by former Councilperson Todd Murphy in Ward II.