Open records request sheds light on police chief’s forced retirement
CRAIG — More questions than answers remain following an open records request to city officials in late August which sought to understand the reasons for the forced retirement of former Chief of Police Walt Vanatta.
However, the correspondence did shed some light on who led the decision and the timeline in which it unfolded.
The request sought all emails and text messages exchanged between Craig City Manager Mike Foreman and members of Craig City Council between June 1 and Aug. 15 pertaining to Vanatta and the police chief position. The writings are public records and subject to the Colorado Open Records Act.
After 19 years as the department’s chief, Vanatta’s retirement in early August came on the heels of controversial budget cuts driven by city leadership that resulted in a restructuring of the police department. The news of his retirement took the department, the community and Vanatta, himself, by surprise.
In response to questions about the change in leadership, Foreman said he wanted “to change directions and philosophies for the police department,” but neither he nor council members offered any further details or explanations at the time. (Interim Chief Jerry DeLong has since indicated he’s looking into introducing online reporting.)
Vanatta said he was told by Foreman that council had “lost confidence in me as police chief and wanted to go in a different direction.”
The results of the open records request did not fully answer why Vanatta was dismissed, nor what the police department’s new direction is, but did offer some insight on the following questions the Craig Press sought to answer:
• What is the agenda behind the decision for the police chief, and which individuals drove the decision?
Based on text and email exchanges between Foreman and Craig Mayor John Ponikvar, it appears Ponikvar led the decision.
The earliest correspondence was an email sent June 26 — a day before the June 27 city council meeting. Ponikvar asked Foreman to seek advice from the city’s insurance agency “regarding the process to remove a Chief of Police. Council is ready to move this forward. How can we expedite and facilitate this important move?”
However, not all council members had yet been consulted about the decision by that date.
City Attorney Sherman Romney stated that, according to his billing records, he and Foreman met with council members June 27 and 29 to “talk with them about changes happening in the police department, as well as for (Foreman) to discuss his decision regarding the Chief of Police position.”
Council never held a meeting to discuss the matter, though it is not required by law to do so. Decisions regarding city personnel, including the police chief, belong squarely with the city manager.
Councilman Derek Duran was copied on the June 26 email, and records show that Ponikvar also immediately forwarded the email to Councilmen Jarrod Ogden and Tony Bohrer. It doesn’t appear council members Andrea Camp, Joe Bird or Chris Nichols were included.
Foreman then met individually with council members and reportedly informed them of the decision to dismiss Vanatta and asked how they felt about it.
Councilman Joe Bird recalls being called in to meet with Foreman right before a council meeting and told that “council has lost confidence in the police chief’s performance. What do you think about that?,” he said.
Though individual meetings don’t constitute a violation of open meetings law, city officials walk a fine line if they represent council’s collective view in individual meetings with council members. That technically could constitute a violation, according to Jeff Roberts with the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.
Regardless, though Foreman said the decision was due to council’s “lost confidence” in Vanatta, it appears Ponikvar and Foreman were primarily responsible for leading council to the decision.
“I can say a majority of council wanted to move forward with that,” Ponikvar said.
• Was Vanatta’s dismissal related to how he implemented budget cuts made at the police department over the summer?
In several communications, Ponikvar indicated he felt Vanatta didn’t cooperate or implement budget cuts according to council’s and the city manager’s wishes.
In a text conversation the June 27, Duran asked Ponikvar, “From you (sic) discussion with (Foreman) yesterday does he still believe this is a move that needs to happen and that it is in the best interest of the community or could you not tell?”
Ponikvar answered, “He certainly understands that is in his and the city’s best interest. Walt is fighting him on everything. His concern is the timing. I personally think that the longer Walt stays the more he will undermine whatever we are trying to accomplish.”
But Foreman previously said he’d had no issues with Vanatta around budget cuts. When asked if Vanatta’s dismissal was due to his handling of the cuts, he replied, “No, not at all.”
“During the seven months I’ve worked with Walt Vanatta, he’s done great job as police chief and has been able to work with me and handled those changes very well,” Foreman said.
Vanatta said he and the mayor had never communicated directly except for on instance in a single budget workshop with city council.
“I felt the police department’s mission was public safety and not code enforcement, and I believe the mayor disagreed with that and his priority was code enforcement,” Vanatta said. “I viewed my role as police chief was to try to represent the department and protect it as best I could, and when you’re talking about budget cuts from the police perspective, all we had was people, there was nothing else left to cut.”
Again on July 5, Ponikvar shared his discontent.
“Sounds like the PD is having a reorganization meeting this morning. Walt is keeping that whole department on edge with nothing positive or productive at this point,” he wrote in a text message to Foreman.
Ponikvar didn’t attend the meeting himself but said he had “a number of sources.”
Vanatta said he simply recounted the changes to his staff that he was directed to make.
“All I did was state the facts, and here’s what I was directed to do, and look at the options,” Vanatta said. “My belief is you need to be totally honest with your people, and that’s what I was.”
As for the deeper reasons behind the decision to replace the chief, Ponikvar refused to go into greater depth, citing it as a personnel matter that can’t be discussed publicly.
“I received a lot more positive comments regarding this change than I did negative,” Ponikvar said. “It’s for the best of the community. … We (council members) all understand what it was about, and the people elected us to make good decisions that benefit the community, and that’s what we’re here to do. In the end, I think it’s very positive.”
Contact Lauren Blair at 970-875-1795 or lblair@CraigDailyPress.com or follow her on Twitter @LaurenBNews.