Predecessor of police chief says Basalt fumbled
BASALT – Basalt Police Department employees should have tried to “develop a strong working relationship” before complaints triggered an investigation that led to the resignation of Roderick O’Connor, according to former top cop Keith Ikeda.
Ikeda was police chief from June 2001 until September 2011 and was known for his friendly, low-key demeanor and transparency of department activities. He hired two of the high-ranking officers in the department, Sgts. Penny Paxton and Stu Curry. He also hired O’Connor and groomed him as his successor. Ikeda, with widespread support of many of his officers, lobbied town officials when he retired to hire O’Connor.
“I didn’t see any problems between he and Penny,” Ikeda said.
O’Connor resigned Nov. 23 after the town hired a company to investigate his professional conduct. The investigation was triggered by a formal complaint by Paxton. An investigation by a human-resources consulting firm found that five other current employees and one former employee concurred that O’Connor was a poor manager. They alleged micromanagement, overexplanation of mundane tasks, poor time management, condescending behavior and lack of appreciation for many of his employees.
The town government initially sealed the report. The Aspen Times filed a lawsuit to get it released. The town dropped its legal battle last week after it learned that O’Connor had shared the contents with the Aspen Police Department, where he is seeking employment.
Ikeda said he read the report last weekend. When asked if any part of the report surprised him, he replied, “I thought a lot of it was fairly minor.” Ikeda stressed he wasn’t downplaying that some people felt “disrespected.”
Nevertheless, working through the problems as a department would have produced a better outcome than what unfolded, he said. O’Connor, the town government, the Police Department and the community all lost in the end, according to Ikeda. Plus, the town paid a significant amount of money to settle the conflict.
O’Connor received a cash-and-benefits severance package of about $84,000. In addition, the town paid $9,348 to Mountain States Employers Council for the investigation into O’Connor’s professional conduct. The Aspen Times and the town are still battling over who pays the newspaper’s legal fees.
“The town should have learned the lesson that they should have released the report in the first place,” Ikeda said. By trying to seal the report, it eroded public confidence that the town acts in a transparent way, he said.
He believes the Police Department, with the help of new Town Manager Mike Scanlon, will have to work hard to regain the support of the community.
“Public trust is easy to lose and hard to gain,” he said.
Ikeda said it isn’t just the Police Department that needs to try to improve its relationship with the community. The Planning Department and Public Works must improve, he said.
When asked if he had any idea what happened to divide the police force, Ikeda said communication apparently failed. The department stopped having weekly staff meetings on Wednesday after Ikeda departed. He felt those meetings were important because they provided a chance to air issues among officers who split their weeks from Wednesday through Saturday and those who worked Sunday to Wednesday. Communication is key, he said.
Meanwhile, supporters of O’Connor’s are standing by their man after the release of the report. Three people who voiced support for O’Connor at a Town Council meeting in November said Monday they haven’t seen or heard of anything in the Mountain States report that changed their minds.
Amy Forsey, a Basalt business owner, said the report didn’t unearth any major problem and nothing that warranted a formal investigation into O’Connor’s professional conduct.
“I definitely think it was Silly Putty,” Forsey said.
Complaints about management style should have been handled differently – in a way that let the Police Department resolve them without O’Connor’s departure, she said.
“I’m glad it’s out,” Forsey said of the report. “I’m glad it’s over.”
Sharon Hall, another supporter of O’Connor’s, said the complaints within the Police Department should have been handled like any business handles them – by talking about the problems and finding solutions. Instead, the town felt it had to launch an investigation, which eventually led to O’Connor’s departure.
“He should not have even had to go through any of this,” Hall said. “That was not fair to anybody. It wasn’t fair to the citizens of Basalt or to Roderick.”
Part of the problem appears to be that the complaint was made while former Town Manager Bill Kane was heading out the door for retirement and his successor, Scanlon, wasn’t in place, she said.
Kelley Burke, another supporter of O’Connor, is a member of a committee organized by Scanlon to help choose the next police chief. She said she wishes the committee’s work were unnecessary. She didn’t see anything in the report that changed her mind about O’Connor.
“I still think it’s very unfortunate we lost him,” Burke said. “It probably could have been resolved very easily.”
If he was as bad of a manager as the report made him out to be, it would have been more apparent in the community much sooner, she said. Instead, O’Connor was widely respected in the town. Now a lot of those supporters are wondering what’s next she said.
The advisory panel formed by Scanlon has identified the traits it wants in the next chief. Everybody seems to be on the same page, Burke said. She noted that O’Connor possessed most of those traits.
The panel will help Scanlon narrow the list of applicants to six and ultimately to two, which the Town Council will interview.
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