Mel Blumenthal
Columnist
Snowmass Village, CO, Colorado

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December 4, 2012
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Mel Blumenthal: Something stinks under the surface of Basalt

Just a short drive downvalley lies the quaint historic railroad town of Basalt. With its two Gold Medal trout streams, Saxy's coffee emporium and cafe, several great restaurants, cheap gas and of course Willits just across the Highway and its acclaimed Whole Foods market, this quiet little burg has recently been in the headlines with the sudden and mysterious suspension and equally mysterious resignation of its police chief, Rod O'Connor.

First let me say that I've known Rod for well over 20 years, way back to when he was the property manager at the Enclave and Paulette and I were just beginning skiers looking for a place for our family to stay during the Christmas holidays. After a few years he joined the Aspen Police Department, where he served for eight years before becoming a Basalt police sergeant in 2007 and ultimately its police chief in 2010, and during all these intervening years we frequently ran into him on the beat.

From our perspective, Rod is a well-liked and respected professional who during his years in Snowmass, Aspen and Basalt dedicated his career to serving the public. So needless to say many of us are shocked and dismayed by all the intrigue and cloak of secrecy surrounding what appears to be just petty inter-departmental bickering.

All the elected and appointed officials in Basalt are hiding behind the convenient excuse that this is a personnel matter that none of them know the details of but are sure the undisclosed allegations against Rod are true otherwise the acting town manager would not have put him on paid suspension and hired the Mountain States Employer's Council to conduct a third-party investigation of a secret complaint against O'Connor.

After reading all the quotes in last week's papers from Basalt's stand-up mayor and council members it appears clear to me, this fish stinks from the head.

These clowns work for the citizens of Basalt and at a minimum owe them, if not all the citizens of the Roaring Fork Valley, more of an explanation regarding this key well-respected department head than just "it's a personnel matter and we can't talk" - that's B.S. in my book.

At the heart of the secret cover story is a lawyer ... isn't there always? This one in the form of a town attorney who advised everyone in sight to keep their mouths shut and like blind sheep they fell in line ... what a bunch of wimps.

Several weeks ago Rod's wife Denise sent a letter to many of Rod's supporters. In it she indicated she was not at liberty to discuss the details of his situation, but that a complaint was filed with the state of Colorado by a few of his staff members that disagree with his management philosophy and say he engages in unfair and tyrannical business practices. Anyone who knows Rod must see the incongruence between those allegations and the honorable person that he is.

She advises that in the five weeks preceding her letter there had been no direct communication from the town other than two meetings between Rod's attorney and the town attorney. It was in these meetings that Rod learned that the town wanted him to resign. They didn't want to terminate him as there appeared little basis for such action.

Because of his mistreatment at the hands of the town's appointed and elected officials he decided that it would be in his best interest to consider a settlement offer from the town instead of filing a law suit that could possibly drag on for years. The cowards that run the town of Basalt don't appear interested in hearing Rod's side of the story.

The only saving grace in all of this is that Basalt is forking over almost $84,000 of taxpayers' money to Rod in exchange for treating him like sh** for all his years of dedicated service. In the press release issued by the town attorney he indicated that the investigation conducted by the Mountain State Employers Council has concluded without a finding or implication of misconduct of any kind and that Rod's temporary suspension did not involve any investigation(s) into criminal law violations and/or civil rights violations.

It makes one wonder what these geniuses who run the Town of Basalt were thinking when they suspended Rod in the first place.

It's likely we've not heard the end of this story since this paper's mothership is considering appealing the town of Basalt's denial of a request to provide the investigation report into the former Police Chief's conduct and the settlement approved as part of his resignation.

The mothership's outside counsel, Steve Zansberg, a Denver attorney for the Colorado Press Association who specializes in open-records litigation indicates there is much legal precedent holding that police officers, much less the police chief, enjoy no reasonable expectation of privacy with respect to how they discharge their official duties, so such files are not considered confidential files under applicable Colorado State Statutes. Zansberg advises that the Colorado Court of Appeals has repeatedly held "an agreement by a government entity that information in public records will remain confidential is insufficient to transform a public record into a private one".

A cautionary note to our elected town officials, be cautious and think twice before blindly following your town staff's advice. Sometimes they don't know what they're talking about and it could end up embarrassing the town, causing distress and harm to a dedicated civil servant as well as costing everyone a lot of money - as was the case in Basalt.

Fourteen days and counting until we return to town for the winter season, that is assuming there will be a winter season, but you can always find me at secondview@earthlink.net.


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The Aspen Times Updated Dec 4, 2012 03:50PM Published Dec 4, 2012 03:49PM Copyright 2012 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.