Basalt spent $181,000 on Basalt ex-police chief Roderick O’Connor incident
Basalt’s parting of ways with former Police Chief Roderick O’Connor and its failed court battle to keep documents about his departure private cost the town government about $181,000.
The town spent $9,348.75 to hire Mountain States Employers Council in the fall to investigate complaints from members of the Police Department about O’Connor’s professional conduct.
When O’Connor resigned Nov. 22, he was given a settlement package worth $83,944 in compensation. That included 10 months of pay, compensation for unused vacation time and health care coverage.
The town’s refusal to release the settlement agreement and other documents related to O’Connor’s departure sparked a legal battle with The Aspen Times. The newspaper filed a lawsuit seeking the release of materials related to O’Connor’s departure. A judge on Monday ordered the documents released and told the town to pay the newspaper’s legal fees. An attorney for the newspaper estimated the fees to be between $40,000 and $50,000.
Basalt Town Attorney Tom Smith billed the town $42,707.10 for work on the O’Connor settlement and litigating the issue, according to the town Finance Office. Smith works on issues as he is needed; he isn’t on the town staff.
Assuming that the newspaper’s legal fees are $45,000, the total bill for the town on the O’Connor matter is $180,999.85.
The order to pay the Times’ legal fees isn’t covered under the town’s general liability coverage, according to town Finance Director Judi Tippetts. Town Manager Mike Scanlon said Monday that the funds likely would be spent from the town’s general fund.
Mayor Jacque Whitsitt said the town management and council felt an obligation to protect an employee’s privacy. If town officials had known O’Connor had shared the information and didn’t live up to his end of the confidential settlement agreement, the town wouldn’t have defended the issue in court, according to Whitsitt.
The expenditure, she said, “is an unfortunately cost of doing business and trying to protect an employee.”
When asked how she anticipates Basalt residents will react to the news of the expenditure, Whitsitt said, “nobody can be happy” when that much money is spent on litigation. “But a lot of people out there understand what we’re trying to do,” she said. Other people won’t understand or agree, she said.
Whitsitt said she is unaware of any consideration by the town to appeal the decision. She said she would have to think “long and hard” before she would vote to spend more money on the issue.
The town’s expenditure could be altered because it is contesting the settlement with O’Connor. He was paid half of the nearly $84,000 settlement when he resigned Nov. 21. The second half was due May 1, but the town didn’t pay it, according to Scanlon. He said the town wanted to see how a judge ruled in the case on whether the documents related to O’Connor’s departure had to be released to the public.
The town contends that O’Connor violated the settlement agreement by sharing the document when he interviewed for a job with the Aspen Police Department, Scanlon said. Scanlon indicated that the town would continue to contest the second payment to O’Connor.
“My guess is there’s probably a judge that is going to have to make that determination,” he said.
O’Connor, who is now an Aspen police officer, was off duty Tuesday and couldn’t be reached at home for comment on the payment dispute.
Scanlon said a legal dispute with O’Connor might have been inevitable because the town was facing pressure from the press and public to disclose more about why it was parting ways with O’Connor but the government felt responsibility to keep private the complaints about O’Connor within the Police Department.
The Town Council accepted O’Connor’s resignation in a closed session. The government released a vague statement about the resignation, but otherwise, officials remained silent on the issue, contending that it was a private, personnel matter.
Scanlon, who took over as town manager in early November, said it was apparent to him when he took the position that the town would be in litigation over the settlement agreement with O’Connor.
“Who’s going to sue me, Roderick or the Times?” Scanlon said he asked himself.
The answer could be both if O’Connor decides to sue to recover the second half of his settlement payment.
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