Report portrays big problems between O’Connor and staff in Basalt Police Dept.
Ryan Summerlin February 15, 2013
BASALT – Former Basalt Police Chief Roderick O’Connor was much more popular in the community than he was in his department, a report on his professional conduct shows.
Five current employees and a former one in the department told an outside investigator with a human resources consulting firm that O’Connor wasn’t a good manager. Different people had different complaints, including alleged micro-management, over-explanation of mundane tasks, poor time management, condescending behavior and lack of appreciation for many of his employees.
One example in the 46-page report said O’Connor made an administrative assistant watch him fill a container with water and take note of the precise amount he gave each plant in the cop shop so she could take over the duties while he was on vacation.
In another example cited in the report, one of two sergeants felt O’Connor showed favoritism to the other sergeant. Sgt. Penny Paxton noted that new patrol officers were calling Sgt. Stu Curry day and night, including when he was off-duty, with work-related questions. As the top three people in the department, O’Connor and the sergeants created a joke about “What Would Stu Do?” or “WWSD.” O’Connor posted a picture of Curry on the police department wall and told the patrol staff to consult with the picture before calling Curry when they had questions.
“I got to thinking about it and became very upset by what was going on,” Paxton told the investigator. “Roderick took a joke that was meant for the command staff, and turned it into this negative thing. I viewed it that he was conveying a message to the patrol staff that they couldn’t or shouldn’t call me with questions because Stu was the only one they could call. He was conveying his lack of faith in me as their supervisor and that Stu was the only one with answers.”
Paxton and administrative assistant Jewel Heisig alleged that O’Connor treated them differently, possibly because they are women. Paxton said O’Connor treated her in ways different from how he treated Curry. In his statements to the investigator, Curry defended O’Connor in many ways, but he acknowledged that O’Connor treated Paxton differently. Curry said that while he got along with O’Connor personally, many employees in the department were upset by O’Connor’s management style.
The investigator concluded there was no solid evidence of gender bias.
However, the report confirms there was widespread dissatisfaction with O’Connor’s management style among the employees interviewed.
“Of all the assessment questions posed to current and former employees, the issue of Chief O’Connor’s management style elicited the most vehement and extensive responses,” the report said. “One major theme among the complaints about Chief O’Connor’s management style is the perceived dichotomy between the Chief’s role as the public face of the Department and his role as the manager and leader of the Department’s staff.
“A common complaint is that Chief O’Connor spends too much time attending non-BPD meetings and places too much emphasis on his relationships with people outside the Department at the expense of the relationships with his employees.”
The town of Basalt released the report Friday after a legal battle with The Aspen Times. O’Connor’s resignation Nov. 23 angered many of his supporters. Several people appeared at a Town Council meeting or wrote letters of support for O’Connor to local newspapers.
Basalt Town Manager Mike Scanlon said he doubts the disclosure of the report will change opinions.
“If you’re a friend of Roderick’s, you’re going to say this was junior high stuff,” Scanlon said. But people who aren’t friends of his will say there were serious issues that needed to be addressed, he added.
Scanlon inherited the personnel manager when he became manager Oct. 31. The widespread criticism of O’Connor’s management style from within the department “made it impossible for him to lead them,” Scanlon said. O’Connor had lost the trust of his department so it was going to be difficult for him to return to the department and lead his officers or discipline them after the investigation.
Scanlon said that public speculation by residents and private comments made to him made Curry out to be a “rat” who complained about O’Connor to advance his own career. The report showed in multiple areas that Curry defended O’Connor but he also acknowledged O’Connor had leadership issues, Scanlon noted.
The town manager also said it was clear from the report and his conversations with O’Connor that the former chief didn’t realize how his employees felt about him.
“He was oblivious to how he was perceived,” Scanlon said.
The investigation was spurred by a complaint filed by Paxton on Sept. 27 with the human resources representative for Basalt. Paxton reported she had been facing issues with O’Connor since September 2010, when former police chief Keith Ikeda retired and O’Connor was promoted.
Paxton, an 11-year veteran of the department, said in a statement to the Mountain States investigator that she was used to how Ikeda treated her and that when O’Connor took the helm “things changed.”
After three years of working for O’Connor, Paxton said she was “at wit’s end” and couldn’t take it any longer. She started seeking employment elsewhere.
“My relationship with Roderick has continually been a challenge, and I have continually been met with his lack of faith in me that I can do the job,” Paxton told the Mountain States investigator. “He undermines me at every opportunity.”
The human resources representative notified then-town manager Bill Kane about the complaint. Kane testified in a court hearing last week that he consulted with Mountain States about the complaint, then hired the firm to investigate. O’Connor was placed on administrative leave Oct. 15.
Mountain States completed its report Oct. 26. Scanlon became manager Oct. 31. He eventually provided O’Connor with a copy of the report as part of his own investigation. O’Connor decided to resign Nov. 23. He testified in a court hearing that he “wrestled with it for a long time” before decided it was best for him and the community to quit. He received a severance package worth about $84,000 in cash and benefits.
Mountain States’ report didn’t recommend any course of action and wasn’t intended to. It was a compilation of allegations with a summary of findings. The investigator found Paxton “reasonably perceives” that O’Connor acted in a condescending manner toward her and that he was dismissive of her by his actions. It was also “more likely than not” that O’Connor favored Curry over Paxton with his actions, the report said.
The investigator concluded Paxton reasonably felt that O’Connor’s posting of the “What Would Stu Do?” picture on the wall as a signal that patrol officers shouldn’t confer with her.
The investigator concluded O’Connor did treat the administrative assistant in a way that could be perceived as condescending.
Scanlon said he aims to have a new police chief selected in April.