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November 30, 2012
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Basalt council wasn't privy to probe of police chief

BASALT - Members of the Basalt Town Council said Thursday they never learned the details of the complaint against Police Chief Roderick O'Connor before voting Nov. 21 to accept a settlement as part of his resignation.

The council members said they were prohibited from looking at the results of an investigation into O'Connor's conduct because they might vote on whether he should be fired or retained. The council members would have looked at the report if O'Connor's employment case would have come before them.

"We were advised not to read (the investigation report) unless it got to that level," said Mayor Jacque Whitsitt.

O'Connor was placed on paid administrative leave the week of Oct. 8 after a complaint was filed with then-Town Manager Bill Kane. The town hired an impartial third party - the Mountain States Employers' Council - to investigate the complaint. The nature of the complaint and the investigation results haven't been opened to the public. Town attorney Tom Smith contends the personnel matter can be kept private under state law.

After extensive negotiations between town staff and O'Connor, a settlement was announced Monday. The parties said in a joint statement that O'Connor resigned "voluntarily."

If the settlement hadn't been reached, incoming Town Manager Mike Scanlon would have been forced to determine if O'Connor's conduct warranted disciplinary action or dismissal. If action were taken, O'Connor could have requested a hearing by the Town Council. The procedure is spelled out in the town code. The police chief, clerk and finance director have the right to request a hearing by the council if they are fired by the manager. Otherwise, the manager has the final word in all personnel issues.

The procedure required that council members remain impartial on the issue, much like a jury selected in a court case must be impartial, Councilman Rick Stevens said.

Whitsitt said the council received only general information about the investigation in executive sessions, which are closed to the public.

"The whole idea was that we not know what was in the 46-page report by Mountain States," Councilman Herschel Ross said. "They kept us as much in the dark as anybody else."

Councilwoman Anne Freedman said the general information was enough to give her confidence that the settlement should be approved.

"I think we really got the essence of it," she said. "The issues were pretty clear-cut."

Freedman noted that no members of the council "expressed any doubt" about approving the settlement. The council considered the settlement in a meeting Nov. 21. Council members Glenn Rappaport and Karin Teague were traveling for the holiday and didn't attend the meeting.

Numerous Roaring Fork Valley residents have contended in letters to newspapers and in a council hearing that the board should have taken a more active role in resolving whatever differences existed in the Police Department and retain O'Connor.

But the council members were emphatic that wasn't possible under the town's current procedures. They couldn't get to the heart of the complaint unless O'Connor's employment issue came to them.

Ross said the town and O'Connor discussed several options. O'Connor selected resignation. As part of the settlement, the administrative leave was lifted officially before his resignation. No disciplinary action was taken as a result of the investigation.

Ross said he never felt a need to look at the report before voting on the settlement. The prime concern was whether the settlement was what O'Connor wanted.

"My question to the town attorney was, 'Is this what Rod wants?' Tom (Smith) said 'yes,'" Ross said.

He later added, "I still have not seen the report, nor do I want to."

Whitsitt said the council might want to look at the procedures used to handle the employment status of its police chief, clerk and finance director. It's possible numerous procedures might be reviewed when Scanlon takes his position next week, she said.

However, Whitsitt expressed support for letting staff try to work out personnel issues before the board gets involved.

"Staff is set up to take first crack at it, which is appropriate," Whitsitt said.

Stevens said he doesn't know if there was an opportunity to resolve whatever issues existed and keep O'Connor in office. If there was, that "should have been the manager's role," he said.

The issue with O'Connor was bad timing for the town. Kane had retired and was working on a contractual basis when the complaint was filed. Scanlon was hired Oct. 30. Although he isn't formally taking the position until Monday, he has been handling some town issues, including the personnel mess he inherited.

"This was awkward and painful to a lot of people," Whitsitt said.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Nov 30, 2012 08:31AM Published Nov 30, 2012 01:54AM Copyright 2012 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.