Newspaper seeks further information regarding police chief ouster
On Tuesday, the Craig Press filed an open records request for more information regarding the forced retirement of former Craig Chief of Police Walt Vanatta earlier this month. Vanatta served as chief for 19 years.
The Craig Press made multiple attempts to learn the reason for Vanatta’s departure through several rounds of interviews with Craig City Manager Mike Foreman, Mayor John Ponikvar and members of the Craig City Council, as well as through questions posed to council during the public comment period of the Aug. 8 city council meeting.
Ponikvar declined to answer the newspaper’s questions Aug. 8, stating that they were taking comments only and citing the matter as a “personnel issue.” Interviews with Foreman and council brought forth no further explanations of the “new direction and philosophy” Foreman said he wanted to see implemented at the Craig Police Department.
Under the Colorado Open Records Act, public bodies are required to provide, upon request, all “writings” made in the process of carrying out official duties.
On Tuesday, Craig Press requested copies of all emails and text messages exchanged between Foreman and council members — and also between individual council members — regarding Vanatta’s departure. The request applies to both personal and official accounts and covers the period between June 1 and Aug. 15.
In so doing, the newspaper hopes to better answer the following questions.
• What is the new direction and philosophy Foreman said he would like to see at the Craig Police Department?
• Was Vanatta’s dismissal related to budget cuts made this summer at the police department or how those cuts were carried out by Vanatta?
• What caused council to allegedly lose confidence in Vanatta as police chief?
• What agenda and which individuals drove the decision?
Though Foreman told Vanatta that council had lost faith in him, the decision appears to have been mostly made before consulting with council members. Council’s only opportunity for input on the decision was via one-on-one meetings with Foreman in which council members were reportedly informed of the decision and asked how they felt about it, according to several council members.
The matter wasn’t discussed in a full council session, neither open nor closed, though Foreman said that was standard procedure.
“What the charter states is I make those decisions with the approval of city council,” Foreman said in an interview Aug. 14. “When I made the offer to Walt (Vanatta), once Walt accepted it I don’t have to go to executive session or full council, I just have to notify them to make sure they’re on board.”
As city manager, it is fully within Foreman’s purview to make such decisions. As for city council’s role in the matter, its charter states council “shall deal with the administrative functions of the City solely through the City Manager,” according to Article II, Section 9.
Though CORA does protect “personnel information,” it is narrowly defined as “home addresses, phone numbers, financial information, and other similar private information maintained because of employer-employee relationships,” according to statute.
“It also lists what a confidential personnel file does not include, such as performance ratings, job applications, employment agreements and records related to ‘any compensation,’ according to Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition Executive Director Jeff Roberts.
A CORA request is not a subpoena, nor does it allege wrongdoing. It is an avenue by which any citizen can ensure government is operating transparently, a value hailed by several council members at meetings earlier this month.
Per Colorado law, the city has until Friday to respond to the request. In a reply Thursday, City Attorney Sherman Romney said the cost of fulfilling the request would cost $360 for two hours of his time. However, according to statute, the city cannot charge more than $30 per hour after the first hour, which is free.
Contact Lauren Blair at 970-875-1795 or lblair@CraigDailyPress.com or follow her on Twitter @LaurenBNews.