Craig police chief retires under pressure from city manager
Though the moment caught nearly everyone by surprise, Craig Chief of Police Walt Vanatta turned in his badge and agreed Friday to accept a retirement package from city officials.
News of Vanatta’s sudden departure spread quickly Thursday morning after he met with Craig City Manager Mike Foreman and City Attorney Sherman Romney. He was told during that meeting that he could either retire or be let go from his position.
“Mike Foreman met with me and told me that council had expressed that they had lost confidence in me as police chief and wanted to go in a different direction and encouraged me to take retirement,” Vanatta said. “And that’s what I decided to do.”
The unexpected turn of events marks the end of a 47-year career in law enforcement for Vanatta, 19 of which were spent serving as the Craig Police Department’s chief.
“I’ve been honored and humbled to serve with all the men and women that make up law enforcement and dedicate their lives to service to the community. The group that’s here is an extraordinary group of law enforcement professionals,” Vanatta said. “I hate to leave at this particular time, but if my leaving keeps one of them there, that makes me happy.”
Current police Commander Jerry DeLong, a 32 year Craig police veteran, has been named interim police chief. The city will conduct a hiring process to permanently fill the position, a process that will include consideration of DeLong, Foreman said.
“I want to change directions and philosophies for the police department, and I think Jerry has proven his capabilities as police chief in the past,” he said. DeLong served a 7-month tenure as interim police chief in Steamboat Springs in 2015.
The shake-up landed in the same week that Craig Police Department said goodbye to its two long-time investigators, Jen Kenney and Travis Young, who both resigned. It was also Cmdr. Bill Leonard’s last week as a commander before transitioning into a lower-ranking detective sergeant position, another consequence of budget cuts. It’s unclear how Leonard’s role in the department will be affected by DeLong’s promotion, which leaves the department without any commanders.
While management of city staff is squarely the responsibility of the city manager, the timing of the action seems to have taken even some council members by surprise, though they were aware of discussions leading up to it.
“I knew there was going to be a conversation had within these next few months with the direction we wanted the police department to go, but I was not made aware of the decision until yesterday,” said Councilman Derek Duran. “I think all of the council was part of that decision and the fact that we supported our city manager, we supported his decision.”
Based on Duran’s understanding, the reason for Vanatta’s departure had to do with “difficulties (Foreman) was having with the police chief,” including, perhaps, some reluctance to make significant budget cuts in his department, he said.
Foreman declined to comment any further on the reason behind the decision but said it wasn’t because of the recent handling of budget cuts.
“During the seven months I’ve worked with Walt Vanatta, he’s done a great job as police chief and has been able to work with me and handled those changes very well,” Foreman said.
Councilman Chris Nichols also refrained from commenting on specific reasons until certain personnel matters are fully resolved.
“We hate to see some good people leave the city. These have been long-time serving members. Jen (Kenney) is well-liked, Walt has been well-liked, but these are some of the realities we’re facing right now is how to reduce the budget because revenue is being reduced,” Nichols said, who added that he supported Foreman’s decision but was not certain what the consensus was among council.
The decision came out of individual consultations that Foreman and Mayor John Ponikvar carried out with council members one at a time, Foreman said.
“This has been a discussion I’ve been having with the council probably for about 30 days about the direction that we wanted to go with the police department,” Foreman said.
Council did not discuss the matter in any executive sessions, he said.
Council members, including Ponikvar and Nichols, have made mention in recent months that they’re willing consider whether the Craig Police Department should be combined with the Moffat County Sheriff’s Office, but both Nichols and Sheriff KC Hume said no discussions have been initiated on that matter.
Though Vanatta initially was not allowed to return to his office Thursday, Foreman and Romney course-corrected Friday, allowing him both to return to his office to wrap up loose ends and to support DeLong in the transition.
“I will do whatever I can do to help Jerry have a smooth transition,” Vanatta said, also voicing his thanks to the community. “I wish everyone here in Craig the best. We like this community, and we’ve lived here a long time and are invested in it. I hope it’s successful and that all of our people here can ride out the storm and continue with their careers.”
Contact Lauren Blair at 970-875-1795 or lblair@CraigDailyPress.com or follow her on Twitter @LaurenBNews.