BASALT - The Basalt Town Council voted, 6-0, on Friday to turn over a report about the professional conduct of former police chief Roderick O'Connor rather than continue a court battle to keep it under wraps.
The decision came after the town learned Wednesday that O'Connor had shared the report with the Aspen Police Department, where he has applied for a job. O'Connor's disclosure of the report was "a game changer," according to Basalt town attorney Tom Smith. "We don't have any control over that report," he said.
The Aspen Times had filed a lawsuit alleging that the report cannot be kept confidential under the Colorado Open Records Act. The town maintained that there are exceptions, such as personnel matters. The issue went to a hearing in Eagle County District Court Tuesday. Town officials said they learned in a surprise revelation from O'Connor Tuesday that he had shared the report with an outside party. By sharing it with a third party, O'Connor sunk the town's ability to say the report was confidential, according to attorneys on both sides.
Aspen Times Managing Editor Rick Carroll released the following statement Friday night: "It is the position of The Aspen Times that the residents of Basalt have a right to know the reasons for their police chief's resignation and significant severance package. The town's refusal to disclose any substantial information about Roderick O'Connor's departure, which we felt was melodramatically shrouded in secrecy, left us with no option but to litigate. Now that the report has been released, people can draw their own conclusions about whether the money for O'Connor's severance package and the ensuing legal skirmish was appropriately spent."
The court battle isn't over. Attorneys for The Aspen Times want the judge who heard the matter to determine that the report was withheld improperly. The town contends it "acted properly in withholding the report until the recent third-party disclosure which occurred during the litigation."
The newspaper also is attempting to get the town to release its settlement agreement with O'Connor. The town disclosed, as required by law, that it gave O'Connor a severance package worth about $84,000 in cash and benefits. Other terms of the deal haven't been released.
Smith said the town isn't saying "yes or no" on the release of the severance agreement. It is asking the judge to tell it what to do.
Another legal battle is imminent over legal fees. The Aspen Times will attempt to get the town to foot its bill. The amount of legal fees on either side isn't available yet, Smith said.
Litigation is also possible between the town and O'Connor over a confidentiality agreement regarding the report on O'Connor's professional conduct. When asked if the town regards O'Connor's sharing of the document as a breach of the agreement, Smith said the answer should be obvious.
In O'Connor's severance package, he received $68,677 in cash for 10 months of salary. He also was paid $7,817 for accrued vacation time. He has been paid half of that amount, according to Town Manager Mike Scanlon. The second half is due May 1. As part of the severance package, he also received health insurance for himself and his wife for one year.
Smith said the town will look into whether the breach of confidentiality affects the town's responsibility for paying the severance.