Topeka city manager was ‘in a pretty bad place’ in final days on the job
Secrecy surrounds the firing of Stephen Wade following investigation into employee concerns
A Topeka police officer guards the closed doors of the city chamber during the July 11, 2023, city council meeting. When the doors opened, the council and mayor voted 10-0 to fire city manager Stephen Wade. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — As Stephen Wade struggled to navigate the turbulence of his final days as Topeka city manager, he frequently turned to a city hall colleague for solace.
He met with her at a bar on the evening of May 31, then exchanged a series of Teams messages with her later that night.
“Am in a pretty bad place,” Wade wrote.
The sentiment underscored the end of Wade’s nine-month reign as the city’s top administrator. He requested a leave of absence one week later, and the city council fired him for undisclosed reasons after a closed-door meeting July 11.
Documents obtained by Kansas Reflector, along with interviews conducted for this story, indicate that Wade struggled to cope with complaints about a worsening crisis with unsheltered residents and the police killings of mentally disabled Black men. Additionally, city employees raised concerns about his conduct, which eventually became the subject of a law firm’s investigation and part of the discussion leading to his dismissal.
The secrecy surrounding Wade’s departure shields city officials, the mayor and council members from explaining their own role in hiring and working alongside him until the bitter end.
Council members were warned not to hire Wade in an anonymous letter sent to them in April 2022. The letter referred to Wade, previously the city’s finance director, as “a tyrant with poor people skills.”
“Wade has mastery of numbers and finance but his moral compass is broken and his decision-making ability is questionable,” the letter warned.
Councilman Spencer Duncan said city employees reached out to him with “concerns” about Wade, and that he was working to confirm those concerns when Wade requested his leave of absence during a closed-door meeting June 6.
The concerns raised by city employees were “part of the discussion” that resulted in the 10-0 vote to terminate Wade’s contract, Duncan said.
The other eight council members and mayor declined to respond to Kansas Reflector questions about why they hired Wade, if they had any reservations at the time, and whether they were aware of any concerns with him before June 1.
“None of the reasons for Mr. Wade’s termination involve concerns of criminal actions,” Duncan said. “They are personnel issues. As they fall under that category, there are federal and state laws that limit what information can be disclosed.”
When the mayor and city council hired Wade in September in a unanimous vote, he was hailed as a candidate with strong local ties rather than another in a series of outsiders.
Wade previously worked at the Topeka Capital-Journal, where he was publisher from 2018 to 2020. (Kansas Reflector’s Sherman Smith, Tim Carpenter and Clay Wirestone worked for Wade at the Capital-Journal.) He joined the city staff in the summer of 2020 and wrangled a budget strained by the COVID-19 pandemic.
He expressed excitement in a video produced by the city shortly after he became city manager.
“Any time you have an internal promotion, it’s a win for the team,” Wade said. “And so I guess what I would say to the staff is this is a win for us.”
Wade made sweeping changes to the structure of city government. The Topeka Capital-Journal reported that he created 34 new positions, including seven with six-figure salaries. They included the promotion in December of Hannah Uhlrig, previously the city’s deputy public works director, to a job that pays $125,000. Her new title was director of special projects and innovation.
Teams messages, which the city provided in response to an open records request, show that Wade frequently turned to Uhlrig for support as he faced increasing pressure. They met for meals and drinks and engaged in late-night chats. He thanked her for the company.
They laughed off a reporter’s questions about the amount of money the city would pay for a hotel — $7.6 million, more than twice the appraised value, in an effort to ensure redevelopment of the property. And they bashed Councilwoman Karen Hiller before and after a meeting between Wade and Hiller on June 2.
“That woman drives my blood pressure sky high,” Wade wrote.
In a series of messages after 8:40 p.m. June 5, the night before he requested a leave of absence, Uhlrig repeatedly encouraged him to think of “a positive interaction” he had that day.
The brightest moment for Wade: “The drive thru chic got my order right.”
Councilwoman Christina Valdivia-Alcala complained about Wade’s “unprofessional” relationship with the Topeka Rescue Mission as she addressed the crowd at a July 17 meeting in North Topeka.
Valdivia-Alcala represents a district that includes the area known as NOTO, a collection of art galleries, shops, restaurants and other small businesses just north of the Kansas River. The area is also known for its close proximity to the rescue mission, a homeless shelter situated between the pocket of commerce and tent encampments along the river.
Wade had been working with leaders of the rescue mission as he looked for ways to funnel taxpayer cash to the shelter.
“I’m going to be real blunt when I say this,” Valdivia-Alcala said. “I’m sad he’s gone. But his relationship with the mission was unprofessional. It was unprofessional. He carried their water.”
Kansas Reflector obtained Wade’s calendar items, emails and the text messages through an open records request with the city. The records show he frequently met and corresponded with rescue mission officials, including executive director LaManda Broyles, in the weeks before he went on leave.
Wade worked with Broyles to draft a resolution that would use $316,966 from the city’s general fund to replace a grant the rescue mission had failed to win from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It would have been an unprecedented allocation of local taxpayer funding to the faith-based nonprofit.
“I cannot promise I am going to be successful,” Wade told Broyles in a May 19 text message, the same day she helped him revise the proposed resolution.
Broyles provided various estimates of the number of families the rescue mission assists through federal funding. She suggested that hundreds of families could be displaced without the transfer of city dollars.
Wade planned to ask the council to support the resolution at the June 6 meeting.
Separately, he told Broyles in a June 1 text that he was adding $1 million into the city’s operating budget for the homeless shelter. The city now says a task force will determine how that money will be spent.
“I know the weight on your mind and shoulders is heavy regarding this,” Broyles said. “Thank you for caring the way you do. Caring for the unsheltered while also caring for a thriving Topeka. I, and TRM, are in this with you. Through successes and setbacks. God guides it all.”
LaRonna Lassiter Saunders sensed that Wade was growing frustrated as she tried to make him understand the need for better relations between the community and law enforcement.
Their conversation stemmed from the police killings last year of two Black men who struggled with mental wellness. The city refused to make public the video captured by police body cameras.
Lassiter Saunders, an attorney and justice advocate, was grateful that Wade was willing to meet with her and other advocates. But she said Wade, the son of a retired Kansas Highway Patrol officer, couldn’t understand the unresolved trauma that Black and Latino residents have from negative experiences with police.
“That’s what I kept trying to explain to Steve, and he was frustrated,” Lassiter Saunders said. “I could tell he was frustrated because at one point I said, ‘Do you understand what I’m saying? He said, ‘No.’ And I’m like OK, I can appreciate at least you’re being honest. But I think his frustration was he couldn’t understand that it was really a problem.”
Lassiter Saunders works with Bridging the Gap, a campaign focused on mental health awareness, training young people to know their rights during police interactions, and building relationships. The meeting took place a few days before Wade took a leave of absence.
Wade listened as Lassiter Saunders tried to explain the distrust that marginalized people have with police. To her, he appeared overwhelmed.
She wanted to know who the community could talk to when they have a concern or want to ask a question. Wade’s solution: People could call him personally.
Maybe his heart was in the right place, she thought, but that wasn’t a viable answer. How would people know the city manager’s number?
She wondered how the conversation was supposed to go: “My son just got pulled over, which we feel was racially motivated. Let me call the city manager see what he can do about it.”
“That doesn’t happen,” she said.
Lassiter Saunders said she was “in his face,” pointing out things that didn’t make sense. That probably added to his frustration, she said. The conversation helped her realize the challenge was bigger than she thought.
“Not only are we trying to heal hurt and damage, but we’re also dealing with two different realities,” she said.
The city council and mayor fired Wade on July 11 following a two-hour meeting behind closed doors.
None of the council members who were present for the meeting or the mayor would answer reporters’ questions. Wade didn’t respond to a text message seeking comment.
City attorney Amanda Stanley said Chris McHugh, a civil litigation attorney from a Kansas City law firm, delivered an investigative report to the council during the closed meeting. The city hired the law firm to “investigate a complaint,” Stanley said.
“Other than that, we don’t comment on personnel matters,” Stanley said.
Stanley said the investigative report wouldn’t be made public.
She declined to say whether Wade had retained legal counsel or if the city anticipated Wade to file a lawsuit.
City residents responded to the city council meeting video on Facebook. Genie Allgood referred to the secrecy as “complete and utter bs.”
“I would like to know why the reason the city manager was on paid leave and what he did (or didn’t do) to get fired! Transparency???” Allgood wrote.
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