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An outside review of the Gillette City Council says some powers were abused and offers recommendations

Gillette City Council chamber
gillettechamber.com

An outside review conducted by Cheyenne attorneys Michael O'Donnell and Donna Murray through the City of Cheyenne was released this week that makes recommendations as to how the city council and appointed officials can better improve their conduct and increase trust in city government. It also states where it had violated laws.

The council commissioned a review in Jan. after former mayor Louise Carter-King resigned after a lengthy series of text messages were released by former City Administrator Patrick Davidson, in which Carter-King used disparaging language aimed at those in both public and private life.

“One of the biggest things was that we had some room for improvement kind of the structure of how some of our meeting has previously been set up,” said City of Gillette Communication Manager Jennifer Toscana. “We’ve made some changes in the last several months as well. The location is held in council chambers, which I think has helped to reduce some of the confusion from the previous setup.”

Toscana said these changes include holding three regularly scheduled city council meetings per month than the previous two and that they’re held in the city council chambers each time. They also apply to how the council and city employees engage in official communications.

“It’s just kind of restricting electronic communication to those city electronic devices and then also just really being cognizant about quorum issues certainly,” she said.

The review, which spanned from 2019-2021, states that executive session privileges were abused in previous years. The stated focus was on the city council, not the previous mayor or city administrator.

“A tremendous disservice to the community occurred as a result of these improper meetings. While it is unknown to O‘Donnell and Murray what legal advice was being provided to Council regarding these improper executive sessions, it does appear that legal counsel was present at most, if not all, of the meetings. As Council members are not typically trained in the law, it is incumbent upon the City Attorney’s office to properly advise Council against holding improper meetings,” the report stated.

“This pattern of Mayoral and Council behavior goes to the very heart of the purposes behind the Wyoming’s Open Meetings Law. Although beyond the scope of this review, questions may exist about the legitimacy of action taken by Council at, or as a result of, these improper meetings,” the report stated.

The review states that some topics were improperly considered, such as conducting regular city business in executive session.

Group chats via text messages were also singled out by the reviewers, stating that they were occurring frequently. These conversations often took place outside of city hall and included being conducted on officials’ personal devices. Since official communication is considered part of the public record, recommendations were made to eliminate group texts and conduct official city business on city-supplied devices. The reports also stated that official communications conducted on personal devices are subject to public records requests.

The reviewers also noted that a lack of civility and respect was displayed at times, including by “outwardly displayed anger at other officials or constituents, maligned or undermined others by use of electronic communications and social media, and failed to abide by proper rules of procedure at public meetings.”

Recommendations were also made to assist the city council and other officials to maintain professional behaviors that are transparent and respectful. Some of these include eliminating meetings that are not adequately disseminated to residents of Gillette, and for which the public’s attendance isn’t “robustly encouraged,” restricting the use of executive sessions to public meetings specifically listed under Wyoming law regarding open meetings statutes, and attempting to keep electronic communications to city-issued devices.

Despite several notable deficiencies, O'Donnell and Murray said the City of Gillette is on the right track.

The full report can be accessed here.

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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