Time for that town hall

By: 
NLJ Staff

Former Newcastle Police Chief Sam Keller’s arrest for domestic violence is concerning for a number of obvious reasons, but we are relieved at least that he has apparently acknowledged wrong-doing and chose to immediately resign his position.

While embarrassing to the city for obvious reasons, Keller’s immediate confession and resignation provided the Newcastle City Council with the opportunity to quickly move on from the incident, and begin the process of rebuilding the community’s trust in the police department.

Unfortunately, the mayor and city council’s response has had the opposite effect, and we believe it has revealed the merit in the concerns long expressed by county officials over the city police department’s continued ability to manage dispatch services for all of the county’s emergency responders.

In fact, the actions of city leaders in the aftermath of Keller’s arrest should prompt an honest public conversation over the city’s management of law enforcement in general.

The was no reasonable or legal justification for the mayor and council’s decision to not hold a public vote to accept Keller’s resignation. It was an obvious attempt to avoid creating a public record that is embarrassing for city government.

The subsequent decision for Mayor Pam Gualtieri and Councilman Don Steveson to take charge of the police department for the foreseeable future also should have been discussed and voted on in public. The failure of the city council to even acknowledge in open meeting that the position of police chief was vacant was a clear attempt to limit the public’s knowledge of the situation by not revealing it in the minutes of the city council meeting that are published on page 14 of this week’s paper.

It is wrong for your government to hide this information from you and it is also illegal, according to the attorney who is representing the News Letter Journal in a lawsuit seeking to require another local government entity, the Weston County Commissioners, to come clean over a secret vote they held last year.

“Elected officials must remember they are there to serve their constituents,” Bruce Moats observed when informed that the city council’s actions. “As James Madison said, ‘knowledge will forever govern the ignorant.’ The public is largely powerless if we don’t know what our government is up to.”

The concerns of the community, however, should go far beyond the feeble and obvious attempts at secrecy from their elected representatives. The decision to declare that the mayor and a lone council member have taken charge of the police department indicates that the city has no faith in the department’s chain of command. They should explain to citizens how they expect us to have faith in the city’s ability to provide quality law enforcement protection in light of that revelation. 

The takeover of leadership responsibilities in the department by Gualtieri and Steveson is actually a confession on the part of city leaders that the department has failed to develop leadership capacity, which is a fatal flaw in an agency which, by nature, exposes its personnel to danger. It is absolutely vital that a chain of command exists in an emergency response agency because there is always a possibility that an emergency could incapacitate leadership and that subordinates will be forced to assume those responsibilities.

The fact that the city council is admitting that they don’t believe the department has that capacity is something that deserves a full and detailed discussion in front of voters, but the mayor and council instead made a deliberate effort to avoid that conversation.

Finally, the mayor’s insistence that the city will move forward with an expensive renovation of City Hall to enable them to move the police department out of the county law enforcement center so that the city can maintain control of dispatch for emergency services is downright frightening.

The arrest and resignation of the person who was advising the city through the dispatch dispute and in charge of the relocation of the department should be reason for at least a cursory evaluation of the city’s actual ability to move forward with their plans.

Instead Gualtieri adamantly insisted that the city is going to proceed with the move and the operation of their own dispatch center, which indicates that public safety and responsible use of taxpayer dollars and public resources probably have little to do with the council’s refusal to negotiate the creation of a countywide Joint Powers Board for dispatch services.

According to the preliminary budget published in last week’s News Letter Journal (also on page 14), this year’s appropriation for the police department is projected to be $1.5 million out of a total $4.1 million general fund budget, and city officials owe you an explanation of how and why that money is being spent. Mayor Gualtieri encouraged this newspaper several weeks ago to host a town hall because she said she wanted residents to be better informed about the ongoing dispatch dispute. 

As mayor, she has the ability to host a town hall on any subject she pleases twice every month, and we suggest she use the council’s next scheduled meeting on June 21 to provide you with the information you are legally entitled to, not just regarding dispatch services but also the city council’s apparent failures when it comes to operating a law enforcement agency at all.

 

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News Letter Journal

News Letter Journal
14 W. Main St.
P.O. Box 40
Newcastle, WY 82701
Ph: (307) 746-2777
Fax: (307) 746-2660

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