Mayor and councilman running PD

Alexis Barker, NLJ News Editor

In the wake of the sudden and unexpected resignation of Police Chief Sam Keller early last week, the Newcastle City Council has reportedly approved Mayor Pam Gualtieri and Council Member Don Steveson to jointly serve as chief of police until a new chief can be appointed. 

Keller submitted his resignation after he was arrested on May 30 for charges of domestic assault (see “Newcastle police chief arrested, resigns” on Page 1 of last week’s News Letter Journal).

Although the NLJ reported last week that the city council accepted Keller’s resignation at their June 6 meeting based on a June 7 phone call, in which Gualtieri confirmed that the council had “accepted Keller’s resignation,” there is no record of the council taking that action in the minutes of the meeting provided to the NLJ by City Clerk/Treasurer Stacy Haggerty (see Newcastle City Council Minutes on page 14).

The minutes do report that the council held an executive session “reference personnel” immediately after Gualtieri “presented the reports for the Newcastle Police Department,” but they contain no mention of a decision by the council to have the mayor and councilman assume the duties of the police chief. 

Gualtieri did not inform the News Letter Journal of that decision in the June 7 phone call,
but based on information provided by Weston County Sheriff Bryan Colvard, the Weston County Gazette reported last week that Gualtieri and Steveson “would be temporarily assuming the responsibilities of Police Chief of Newcastle.”

In response to questions about the decision for her and Steveson to assume the chief’s responsibilities, Gualtieri told the News Letter Journal Monday in an email that the police department is a “young” department and also short-handed, and indicated “it’s in the best interest of the department and the city that we have a more experienced outside person to lead the department.”

According to Gualtieri, the city is actively searching for a new police chief with the assistance of the Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy/Peace Officers Standards and Training (commonly known as P.O.S.T.) and the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police. 

When asked why a city police officer was not selected to lead the six-member department in the interim, Gualtieri told the News Letter Journal that none of them have  the P.O.S.T. certification required to serve as chief. The staff currently has four officers (Jason Barker, Laramie Frank, Peg Miles and Lance Riebel), one sergeant (Quintin Tacy) and one detective (Richard Hillhouse), according to information provided by Haggerty.

In response to a query about the mayor and councilman’s qualifications to lead the department, Gualtieri said she and Steveson have both received crisis training, as well as several active shooter training sessions. She noted that Steveson is a 40-year member of the Newcastle Volunteer Fire Department and part of the Local Emergency Planning Committee, and that she has trained as a police dispatcher and with the Wyoming Department of Corrections. 

“We are prepared to make any tough decisions based upon what is given to us for information and activity at the time of the calls,” she said of the council’s apparent decision to forego the department’s chain of command to instead place elected officials in charge of the city’s law enforcement.

Weston County’s emergency management coordinator, Gilbert Nelson, said that the Wyoming office of Homeland Security has no regulations or recommendations in place regarding chain of command and hierarchy in police departments, but Colvard confirmed that his department has two sergeants prepared to take over, no questions asked, if he was ever incapacitated or otherwise unable to perform his duties as sheriff. 

Nelson told the News Letter Journal that while temporary assumption of police chief duties by elected officials is technically legal and falls within the rules and regulations set forth by Peace Officer Standards and Training, it is not ideal. 

“I don’t think this is a long-term solution,” Nelson said, noting that as long as the city is actively seeking a new chief, the short-term solution is acceptable.

Chris Welsh, P.O.S.T executive director, confirmed that Gualtieri and Steveson stepping in to manage the department did not violate rules or regulations. He did note that specific law enforcement duties would remain with the department and the officers, and that the mayor and councilman are limited to administrative duties.

When pressed about the procedure that would be followed if she and Steveson disagreed on a course of action, Gualtieri said situations that require upper-level decision making will be forwarded to her and Steveson for review. If the pair together cannot reach an agreement, she said, legal counsel would be consulted and the issue would be brought before the entire council.

As for emergency situations that require an aggressive and expert law enforcement response — like an active shooter situation in local school — Gualtieri expressed confidence that she and Steveson were up to making the tough calls.

“Both (of us) are participating in the upcoming active shooter training at the end of this month,” she told the News Letter Journal in the Monday email.

In spite of the fact that the minutes of last week’s meeting make no reference to Keller’s resignation or to a discussion or decision by the council regarding  the mayor and councilman assuming the role of police chief, Gualtieri insisted that all of the council’s decisions are made in public meetings.

“Some information is sent out for each to review ahead of the meetings so we can be prepared, as some things take some time to read over, and  … not take up time in a public meeting,” she wrote in the email. “We have been consistent at keeping decisions in open meetings and do not make any decisions or motions in committee meetings or executive session meetings.” 

However, Gualtieri told the News Letter Journal last Friday that Keller’s resignation was accepted via email and not during a regular council meeting, and she later asserted that the city’s policy handbook allows for resignations to be “accepted verbally or in writing,” which she claims allowed the council to avoid any mention of the topic in open meeting.

“We did not feel this was necessary as nothing in our policy or city handbook stated we had to vote on this and accept in a public meeting,” Gualtieri wrote, indicating also that the city attorney had been privy to the discussion and agreed that the resignation could be accepted via email. 

However, Bruce Moats, an attorney employed by the News Letter Journal and other member newspapers of the Wyoming Press Association to litigate open meeting and public records violations, believes that the council’s acceptance of the resignation is in violation of the Wyoming Public Meetings Act. He said that accepting a resignation is an “action” that the council can only take in an announced meeting where the public can observe the proceedings contemporaneously. 

“There was no announcement of this meeting, so it violated the Public Meetings Act,” Moats said, indicating that the emails discussing the acceptance of Keller’s resignation now constitute a public record that should be made available upon request.

“The public ought to be able to read the emails just as if they were there attending an in-person meeting,” he stated.

Aside from the email communications that allegedly exist to record the council’s acceptance of Keller’s resignation, the mayor said that there were only two other conversations held by council members in regard to the situation prior to their meeting on June 6.

“We had two meetings to discuss this issue. One was with the Police Committee (Steveson and Councilwoman Ann McColley), the day after the notification the chief was arrested to discuss how we would run the department until an interim could be found. We held a meeting with the police department employees based upon our decisions and feedback from P.O.S.T and the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chief of Police,” Gualtieri wrote to the NLJ on Monday evening.

The procedure utilized by the mayor and council differs considerably from the one used when Keller was tabbed to run the department following the resignation of former Police Chief Jim Owens nearly two years ago.

Keller, who became a Newcastle police officer on Oct. 21, 2019, was appointed interim chief of the department at a council meeting on July 6, 2020 — the same meeting at which the council voted to accept Owens’ resignation.

At that meeting, former councilman Roger Hespe recommended the appointment of Keller on behalf of the police committee. It was reported that the police committee — composed at the time of Hespe, Steveson and Gualtieri (then a council member) — had met on July 2 and discussed recommending Keller despite the fact that the council had not yet voted to accept Owens’ resignation.

Keller was appointed chief on a permanent basis on Sept. 21, 2020.

The mayor provided no timeline for filling the chief’s position this time, but said the process to find a permanent replacement has begun.

“We are in the process of seeking a new police chief with the assistance of the Wyoming Law Enforcement Academy/P.O.S.T, Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police (WASCOP). We also plan to advertise once feedback is given from the above mentioned,” she told the News Letter Journal.

Gualtieri also said that Keller’s resignation would not impact the city’s plans to undertake a quarter-million dollar project to renovate City Hall in order to relocate the city police department and the dispatch center there as the result of an ongoing dispute with the county regarding dispatch services.

“The plans of relocating our police department and dispatchers has not changed. It is important that we protect our employees. The chief’s resignation has nothing to do with this matter,” she proclaimed.

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