No winners in Basalt Police Department flap
Aspen, CO Colorado
When this newspaper sued the town of Basalt over the release of a neutral party’s report concerning complaints about former police chief Roderick O’Connor, some accused us of being on a dirt-digging mission. We weren’t. Instead, we had no choice but to litigate because the town clamped down on a report that we believed the public was entitled to view.
O’Connor had been a popular police chief, at least with many of Basalt’s residents. But when he resigned Nov. 23, no Basalt elected officials or bureaucrats would tell the press or public why. He received a hefty severance package worth nearly $85,000, while a number of questions went unanswered.
The public was left to speculate why O’Connor left, why he received the severance package and why $9,348 of their tax dollars went to a third party to investigate a personnel flap. This newspaper did not believe Basalt was being transparent but instead was digging in its heels to spare a few employees of any embarrassment. The town conveniently claimed the matter fell under the catchall of a personnel issue that was private. To us, those were weak reasons to keep the report sealed.
Basalt’s public position, in short, had been that by releasing the report, written by the Mountain States Employers Council, it would prevent other whistle-blowers from speaking out against town administrators. The town also argued that the report was part of O’Connor’s personnel file and releasing it “would do injury to the public interest.”
But Friday, the town had no option but to release the report after O’Connor revealed the Aspen Police Department reviewed it during the course of its interview process with the former police chief. When O’Connor let the APD review the report, the town of Basalt had essentially lost control of it and waived any privilege it maintained it had.
We have read the report – it’s available on our website – and it produced no bombshells. Rather, the report was chock full the kind of gripes you hear your friends or spouses vent about over a post-work beer: micromanagement, overexplanation of mundane tasks, poor time management, condescending behavior and lack of appreciation for many of his employees.
It’s no wonder the town of Basalt did not want the report released. By putting the spotlight on office politics at the Basalt Police Department, the town would have exposed an embarrassing personnel matter for what it was. And that’s what it did.
Perhaps O’Connor was not suited for the job of police chief. He certainly was held in low regard by his police force, but many effective leaders aren’t the most popular people in their workplace.
It’s a shame the town could not sort this matter out through mediation or arbitration. It’s also a shame that not one public official, either elected or in the administration, stood up for O’Connor, given that the new town manager, Mike Scanlon, concluded that the then-police chief’s actions didn’t rise to the level of termination or disciplinary action.
But because of flaws in the town’s employee-review system, the council could not review the report but it did approve the severance package – worth nearly $85,000, remember? – without getting to the heart of the matter of why O’Connor left.
To us, that is bad business on the town’s part, and it exposes flaws in its system.
To the credit of Scanlon, he plans to address problems with the town’s employee review system in March. Scanlon admits the system needs work.
At this point, that’s the least the town of Basalt can do. The entire process will be an expensive one for this town of roughly 3,000 – the cost of the investigation, O’Connor’s severance package and defending the lawsuit, to name a few. Basalt should be embarrassed by this personnel circus, which shouldn’t have come to town in the first place.
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