Basalt official tackles police-chief mess
February 18, 2013
BASALT – The resignation of Roderick O’Connor as Basalt police chief exposed a personnel-review system that has some major flaws, according to Town Manager Mike Scanlon.
No annual performance reviews were conducted on O’Connor by the town manager or any other official, so there wasn’t a chance to detect and potentially resolve problems between him and his staff, Scanlon said.
“He did his own annual reviews. I’m not sure that’s valid,” said Scanlon, who inherited the personnel mess when he took the manager’s post Oct. 31.
O’Connor was appointed police chief in September 2010. Tensions with some staff members reached a head in September when Sgt. Penny Paxton filed a formal complaint with the town. Then-Town Manager Bill Kane consulted with an outside firm that specializes in human-resources issues and decided to hire that firm to perform an investigation into the complaints.
A report on that investigation shows five current employees and one former worker in the department unanimously criticizing O’Connor’s management style. The complaints alleged micromanagement, overexplanation of mundane tasks, poor time management, condescending behavior and lack of appreciation for many of his employees.
Scanlon said he is unaware of any prior complaint about O’Connor’s professional conduct.
“Had I had anything other than (the investigation report), I might have had a decent shot at working with Roderick,” Scanlon said.
The problems between O’Connor and his staff were “systemic, and they had been occurring for a while,” Scanlon said. The investigation report shows that problems popped up at least one year ago, he noted.
“So let’s go from that point: Is there anything that the town could have done differently? It’s really easy to Monday-morning quarterback,” Scanlon said.
The biggest hurdle, he said, was the gulf between how O’Connor perceived his performance and how his employees felt he was doing.
“There was such a disconnect in the department. I don’t know if a different manager would have made a whole lot of difference in that,” Scanlon said.
Despite the rift in the department, Scanlon said the investigation by Mountain States Employers Council unearthed nothing that O’Connor could be disciplined or fired for in his assessment. The town code identifies 16 acts that warrant discipline. None of them applied to O’Connor’s case, according to Scanlon.
“I was nowhere close to deciding what to do,” he said.
Instead, O’Connor resigned Nov. 23 after he read the near-universal condemnation of his management style by employees who were interviewed.
“The weight of it, in terms of the number of people who were involved in describing his performance, made it – I would say – impossible for him to lead them,” Scanlon said. “He arrived at that.”
So the town system is flawed by allowing some employees to evaluate their own performance and by identifying 16 specific actions that warrant discipline, according to Scanlon.
“Five or six” of those identified acts “need to go,” he said, and “five or six” are missing. The actions need to be more performance-based, he said.
A third flaw in the town’s personnel system involves the Town Council, according to Scanlon. As written, the town code says the manager can recommend discipline or termination of the police chief, the clerk and the finance officer. However, the Town Council must review the recommendation while sitting as a quasi-judicial board. Since the council potentially has the final word, it cannot get involved earlier in the process. (The manager can discipline or fire other employees without the council’s review.)
Many Basalt residents expressed frustration that the council didn’t intervene early in the process to iron out problems involving a police chief who was popular in the community.
On one hand, the council was catching heat to get involved; on the other hand, its code forbade it from getting involved until it was needed to review the town manager’s recommendation.
“It’s a terrible place,” Scanlon said. “Talk about a no-man’s land, and talk about a no-man’s land for the town manager. You want to try to tell them more, but at the same time, … the only thing (the report) does is taint their view.”
His advice is to remove the council from the personnel-review process altogether. Scanlon said he will advise the council later this year to amend the town code to set up a personnel-review board composed of the human-resources directors of other local governments.
Mayor Jacque Whitsitt said she wouldn’t have intervened earlier in O’Connor’s case even if the board weren’t prohibited from acting until sitting as a quasi-judicial body. It isn’t appropriate for the council to be directly involved in personnel issues, she said. The board sets policy, and the town manager implements it, she said.
“I feel pretty strongly that it’s not the role of a board,” Whitsitt said.
Scanlon said he doesn’t want to move quickly on the personnel issues as a reaction to O’Connor’s situation. Instead, he likely will raise the issues with the council in May or June.