Basalt ex-police chief Roderick O’Connor didn’t want to leave
Documents released by the town of Basalt on Tuesday as part of a court order show that ex-Police Chief Roderick O’Connor was incredulous that he was being ousted from his position and angry over what he felt was betrayal by town officials.
While O’Connor’s departure has been officially termed a resignation, emails and correspondence between O’Connor and town officials and among town officials paint a different picture.
Eagle County District Judge Mark Thompson ordered Monday that 32 documents totaling 71 pages pertaining to O’Connor’s departure be released to the public. The town provided the documents Tuesday to an attorney for The Aspen Times.
It is clear from numerous documents that O’Connor didn’t want to give up his position. He wrote an email Oct. 30 to then-Town Manager Bill Kane urging him to help resolve the personnel disputes within the Police Department before Kane left office at the end of October.
“Your leaving the fate of everything I have given my heart and soul to for the past 5 years at Basalt PD, and especially the past two years as Chief of Police, to someone else to handle is beyond comprehension,” O’Connor wrote.
O’Connor asked Kane if he had looked into the 19 allegations made against him by officers and other workers in the department.
“A third of them I had already addressed and thought were handled at the office with the officers involved,” O’Connor wrote. “The rest are lies and misunderstandings. And yet a deliberate, premeditated attack on my good name has everyone at Town Hall running scared.”
To add insult to injury, in O’Connor’s eyes, was Kane’s decision to promote Sgt. Stu Curry and Sgt. Penny Paxton as co-chiefs while O’Connor was on administrative leave.
“Wow! When do I get my day in the sun to address this injustice?” O’Connor wrote.
O’Connor asked Kane why he “didn’t have his back” and end the “witch hunt” when he could have as town manager. The chief or the manager could have addressed all the complaints, he wrote.
“The bullshit could have ended there,” O’Connor wrote.
Instead, he noted, Kane was riding off into the sunset for retirement and leaving O’Connor in a tough spot.
“The whole situation and the way I have been treated lacks integrity, has no honor and is so disrespectful I can hardly stand it,” O’Connor wrote. “I feel betrayed by those I have trusted, including you, Bill.”
Kane responded the next morning in a defensive tone.
“This is no fun for anyone,” he wrote.
Kane noted that he submitted his resignation July 10 and provided six weeks of notice. His last day was Aug. 24, though he signed on to work by contract on a part-time basis.
“This complaint was filed in October so your slam at me is way out of line,” Kane wrote. “I have a high opinion of you Roderick, and am sure that both you and bpd will weather this.
“You should understand that we had no opportunity to prevent this investigation.”
After the exchange, O’Connor’s wife, Denise, wrote Kane an email and said O’Connor’s email wasn’t meant to be sent to him. She said she sent it accidentally and that her husband simply had gotten some of his thoughts down on paper to try to ease his frustration.
Regardless of intent, other documents make it clear that O’Connor felt unjustly treated. O’Connor was interviewed in mid-October by Mountain States Employers Council, an organization hired by the town to investigate the complaints filed by Police Department employees. In a follow-up email to the investigator, O’Connor objected to his treatment by the town. He said Kane informed him by email rather than a telephone call that Curry and Paxton were appointed as interim police co-chiefs. Calling them “interim” chiefs made it sound like he wasn’t coming back, O’Connor protested.
“Have I already been convicted and sentenced?” O’Connor asked the investigator. “And, what is with ‘co-chiefs?’ Nobody does that.”
O’Connor provided documentation that he said refuted charges made against him by Paxton.
While Kane felt everything would work out for O’Connor and the Police Department, other town officials realized they were in a tough position.
Town Finance Director Judi Tippetts was thrust into a position of assessing the situation because of the reduced role of Kane before Mike Scanlon arrived as the new town manager. Scanlon came aboard in early November.
On one of his first days on the job, Scanlon asked Tippetts for her “take” on the situation. She reported that Police Department employees repeatedly reported to her that they were belittled, humiliated, degraded and subjected to condescending treatment by O’Connor.
“I cannot imagine a work environment where we reduce officers to tears, including men and women,” Tippetts said.
She said the O’Connor that is presented to the council and management staff most of the time is the “nice” version, “but when he is stressed he can be unkind and ugly to people.”
Tippetts said she asked both Curry and Paxton if there was a scenario where O’Connor could lead the department with coaching or structured probation.
“They both responded no,” she wrote in her email to Scanlon.
Scanlon came to the conclusion on Nov. 1 that O’Connor couldn’t stay on as police chief.
“Had Roderick wanted to change how people were being affected he would have changed his behavior long ago,” Scanlon wrote to Tippetts. “He didn’t change, he’s affecting the performance of the organization and a change is needed in the Police Department.”
Scanlon said the position was defendable, though one he didn’t like defending.
“So now the task is getting him to resign,” Scanlon wrote. “With a lawyer now representing Roderick this gets a little or a lot trickier.”
O’Connor had a tough time reaching the conclusion that he should resign, according to an email from his attorney, Lawson Wills, to Town Attorney Tom Smith.
“I spoke to Roderick and he is having great difficulty in that he feels the present deal does not sufficiently clear his name,” Wills wrote. “In fact, he is a bit worked up over it.”
He told Smith on Nov. 13 that he would give O’Connor some time and then approach him again about settlement issues.
Smith responded that “with all due respect to Rod,” he needed to be realistic.
“What does he mean by clearing his name?” Smith asked. “The investigative report is not going away. His only option is to fight it before Town Council. If he wins, and goes back to a department where people can quit and say whatever they want, or stay and say whatever they want, has he cleared his name?
“We are dealing with a real situation here, not some set of trumped up allegations here made by one employee.” Smith advised that O’Connor accept responsibility for the breakdown of the department, “whether it is all his fault or not.”
Smith then made the town’s position clear to Wills.
“This is a very good deal for him, but if he wants to air it all out, spend the money, lose severance, benefits, etc., we are prepared to go there.”
O’Connor resigned nine days later.
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