Newsmakers of the Year: Part 1
Editor’s note: Today and Wednesday, The Aspen Times continues a 10-year-old tradition as it reviews the biggest local newsmakers of the year. Today, we publish our selections of spots six through 10, along with honorable mentions. On Wednesday, it’s the top five newsmakers of 2013, along with a special note of those the community lost that year.
Roderick O’Connor and the town of Basalt
Former Basalt Police Chief Roderick O’Connor’s parting of ways with the town started as a low-key resignation in November 2012 and exploded into a community controversy during the first half of 2013.
The Town Council ended a stalemate with O’Connor in July by agreeing to pay the second half of a settlement package worth nearly $84,000. O’Connor received the first half of the package when he resigned. The second half was due May 1, but the town withheld payment until a legal dispute with The Aspen Times was resolved.
The newspaper filed a lawsuit to force the town to share results of an investigation into O’Connor’s professional conduct and other documents related to his departure.
The town hired an outside consultant to gauge O’Connor’s performance as police chief after a sergeant in the department filed a grievance. The town initially refused to release the documents, citing a confidentiality agreement with O’Connor. The newspaper contended the documents shouldn’t be a sealed part of his personnel record and that the community had a legitimate interest in the investigation results.
The newspaper prevailed in the court battle after it was revealed during the trial that O’Connor shared the investigation results with the Aspen Police Department when he applied there for a job after leaving Basalt.
Town officials said they wouldn’t have battled the newspaper in court if they had known O’Connor previously shared the information.
The report showed that officers in the police department almost universally criticized O’Connor’s management style. An administrative aid, no longer with the department, complained that O’Connor told her how to perform even the simplest of tasks — such as watering the plants — in excruciating detail.
Sgt. Penny Paxton, who left the department on good terms to pursue a career option in December, triggered the investigation with an allegation that O’Connor treated her unfairly.
Documents released as part of the court battle show O’Connor didn’t want to leave the department. He told former Basalt Town Manager Bill Kane that the complaints could be addressed within the department. Employees in the department told Basalt officials that O’Connor wouldn’t be able to lead the department after the investigation. New Town Manager Mike Scanlon concluded that O’Connor couldn’t lead the department and worked out the settlement agreement that O’Connor eventually accepted.
O’Connor was hired by Aspen as a police officer. Longtime Carbondale cop Gregg Knott was hired as Basalt Police Chief and has received high marks from town officials and residents.
The settlement package plus the court battle to keep documents sealed proved costly for Basalt taxpayers. The town paid almost $43,000 to its attorney and $53,566 for the newspaper’s legal fees. The total expense, including the settlement package, cost $180,217.10, according to town records.
— Scott Condon
Thompson Divide players
The debate over drilling for natural gas in the Thompson Divide area west of Carbondale had numerous twists and turns but no resolution during 2013.
The Thompson Divide Coalition is leading the effort to prevent gas extraction on 221,500 acres of federal lands that spill into five counties along a swath from Sunlight Mountain Resort near Glenwood Springs to McClure Pass, southwest of Redstone. The divide is west of Highway 133 in rugged backcountry.
Thompson Divide Coalition wants to secure permanent protection of the area with federal legislation that would withdraw it from eligibility for future leasing. U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) introduced the Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act of 2013 in March. U.S. Sen. Mark Udall signed on as a co-sponsor in October.
In addition, the coalition has offered to pay existing leaseholders to retire leases covering tens of thousands of acres of federal lands.
S.G. Interests, a Houston-based company that has been the most active in the divide, said Thompson Divide Coalition hasn’t offered enough to offset its investment. The company is pursuing drilling.
S.G. Interests applied to the White River National Forest and Bureau of Land Management in November to drill exploratory gas wells roughly 10 miles southwest of Carbondale. Two wells would be drilled from the same abandoned well pad, which is located in the northwestern corner of Pitkin County.
The oil and gas company’s application estimated 1,034 truck trips would be generated from the exploratory work. Those heavy-truck and crew-pickup-truck trips would go through Glenwood Springs into the heart of Thompson Divide. If the drilling shows extraction is feasible, a greater amount of traffic would be generated as wells are drilled.
U.S. Forest Service officials said review of the application wouldn’t start until the Bureau of Land Management decides the disposition of some of S.G. Interest’s leases. Wilderness Workshop, a Carbondale-based environmental group, and Pitkin County government contend the BLM didn’t undertake a thorough environmental review of lands offered by lease in 2000. In addition, they contend the leases should have expired after 10 years because of lack of activity, but the BLM unlawfully extended the deadline.
All parties in the debate are waiting for the BLM’s decision on the objections.
Meanwhile, Thompson Divide Coalition keeps making the case that the divide is more valuable as a long-term economic driver rather than a short-term gas field. Hunting, fishing, ranching and recreation support nearly 300 jobs and generated $30 million in annual economic output, according to a study performed for the coalition.
— Scott Condon
Aspen Valley Hospital
Aspen Valley Hospital often is in the news every year, but the public health facility made more than its fair share of headlines in 2013.
After lengthy and sometimes contentious discussions, Aspen Valley Hospital officials during the spring received City Council approval to continue with their controversial expansion project, but they had to promise to improve the landscaping buffer around the hospital campus and shield rooftop mechanical equipment in order to mask the facility’s size.
The late-night decision on May 13 was 5-0 on final approval to allow the hospital to move forward with its third and fourth phases, representing an additional 83,000 square feet, of the four-phase project. Many of the council’s concerns appeared to be grounded in what already has been built in the first two phases, especially Phase 2, which involved the new parking garage and an addition to the main building.
Councilman Steve Skadron, who a few weeks later would be elected mayor, compared the four months of wrangling over the project to previous development requests in which the council has had to continually push for concessions to ensure that a project is more to the community’s liking.
“And here we are again,” Skadron said, being placed in a difficult position when the developer could have started the process with a plan that was acceptable to the council and the community.
Just weeks after winning that much-needed development approval, the hospital saw more controversy when a rift between its two general surgeons over the past eight years became a community concern. The lines were drawn at a town hall-style meeting held at the facility’s board room on June 11.
More than 100 patients, hospital employees and other community members listened — more than 20 of them asked questions or provided comments — in the matter of Dr. John Schultz versus Dr. Bill Rodman.
For nearly 20 years, Rodman had a contract that made him the “exclusive provider” of general surgical services for the hospital. Earlier this year, he decided to fire Schultz, whom he hired in 2004, following many years in which the two men worked together but simply could not get along. The hospital even hired a mediator who worked to reconcile their differences throughout 2011, but to no avail.
The firing, which Schultz alleged was unfair, was upheld during an executive session of hospital board members on April 9. Schultz has said he did not learn about his termination until then-CEO Dave Ressler informed him on April 17. Just weeks earlier, Schultz said, he had been discussing the prospect of becoming a direct hospital employee with administrators, who were considering doing away with the “exclusive provider” agreement.
John Sarpa, interim CEO of the hospital, later said it was his understanding that a direct-employment model for both Schultz and Rodman had been contemplated, but obviously there was a breakdown.
He said the open meeting provided a healthy discussion about the situation.
“We wanted people to have the opportunity to ask questions, and we also wanted to listen and learn, to further understand,” Sarpa said. “I thought it was a very good exchange of information both ways.”
As of December, the hospital is still exploring ways of obtaining a second surgeon to serve the community, while Rodman remains the chief surgeon for the facility.
Compared with the first two news-making items, the hiring of Dan Bonk as hospital CEO in October was undramatic.
Bonk, a former college track star, was serving as president of Aurora Medical Center in Summit, Wis., when he applied and became a finalist for the job in Aspen. He starts on Jan. 2.
The hospital’s board unanimously voted to hire him and enter negotiations over his contract on Oct. 14. Bonk will earn $390,000 per year in base salary, plus various incentives and benefits, according to a hospital spokeswoman.
He will receive travel expenses for the move to Aspen, free housing at the CEO’s residence on the hospital’s campus and bonus pay — as much as 30 percent of his base salary — at the end of each year, should he meet certain goals.
The position came open when CEO Dave Ressler resigned in April to take a job with a hospital in Tucson, Ariz.
— Andre Salvail
Stay of execution for Little Annie’s
It’s certainly not news each time an Aspen restaurant closes, but when Little Annie’s Eating House’s immediate future looked bleak in October, it could be likened to a wrecking ball aimed in the direction of Fenway Park.
An Aspen institution, Little Annie’s — a popular dive restaurant with both locals and guests — was shut down on Oct. 15 by the state Department of Revenue because of $44,551 owed in sales taxes. Instead of paying the taxes with the goal of reopening, restaurant owner Ed Dingilian, who lives out of state, opted to let the auction proceed and relinquish his hold on the location he was leasing and formerly owned.
For two weeks in October, headlines about the future of Little Annie’s dominated the news pages. Some 40 workers were out of jobs, and the restaurant’s entire inventory seemed certain to vanish at the state’s Oct. 28 auction.
But the group that owns the 517 E. Hyman Ave. building, where Little Annie’s is housed, bought up everything in sight for the bulk price of $40,000.
In doing so, they turned the keys over to Little Annie’s general manager Rohn Fleming, who plans to run the restaurant through March. But after that, Little Annie’s will likely be done for good, as the building is slated to be redeveloped in April.
In any case, the stay of execution was welcome news to many who didn’t want to see the plug pulled so abruptly on Little Annie’s.
At the auction, Pitkin County Commissioner Rob Ittner, who owns Rustique Bistro in Aspen, succinctly summed up the developments: “It’s the biggest community event of the season.”
— Rick Carroll
X Games death spurs changes
When snowmobiler Caleb Moore died a week after crashing his sled at the Winter X Games at Buttermilk on Jan. 24, the usual buzz of high-flying acrobatics in a snowy setting was abruptly muzzled. Instead, the conversation turned to safety at the Winter X Games, which had seen a fair number of harrowing crashes in the event’s 18-year history, but never one that resulted in a fatality.
The death of Moore, 25, in the snowmobile freestyle event spread talk of whether the event should be held at all at the X Games.
Additionally, a separate incident at the X Games, during the snowmobile best-trick final, produced a scare when a snowmobile landed upright, and the throttle stuck open, sending the machine careening into a fence. The snowmobile was slowed significantly but still came in contact with the knee of a young male spectator, who was checked out at the scene but wasn’t taken to a hospital.
Meanwhile, in November, X Games producer ESPN announced that it would keep the snowmobiling freestyle event, but with extra precautions.
Among the added safety measures are that riders must wear body vests. Additionally, snowmobiles must use “ski springs,” which keep the machines’ ski tips upward and provide clearance for a safer landing.
In response to the snowmobile that went into the crowd, ESPN also said it would have more perimeter protection for fans. The changes, ESPN said, came after the network worked “closely with athletes, risk-management specialists and sport organizers in making this determination.”
— Rick Carroll
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