Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Let me start with a clear statement of ignorance: I know pretty much nothing about what happened at the Basalt Police Department that resulted in Chief Roderick O’Connor losing his job.
I don’t know what he did (or didn’t do). I don’t know who complained. I know nothing. Zippo.
But here’s what I do know: I know I’d like to find out all of that. I’d like to see all the blanks filled in with actual facts.
And I also know it’s important.
It’s not that I personally have a right or a need to know. Frankly, I don’t.
But the people of Basalt have the right to know. Their taxes pay the salaries of the police chief, the rest of the police department and the people who made the decisions that led to the chief leaving the job.
And it’s not just about their tax money. The real point is this: It’s their town. They trust their safety to those cops. And they trust the smooth operation of their town to the rest of those civil servants.
So they have a right to know – and a need to know – what the heck happened.
And it’s a pretty rotten deal that they are not being told.
Actually, it’s worse than “not being told.” They are actively being told “no.” They’re being told it’s none of their business. They’re being told they do not have the right to know how their town is being run.
In fact, the town is willing to spend a lot of money to go to court to make damn sure the people never find out what happened.
That’s a seriously bad deal.
Let me take a moment here to say that I know both Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt and Bill Kane, the former town manager who handled the O’Connor mess as his last job for the town. I like them both. They’re solid, decent, honest people and great public servants.
But this time they wound up neck-deep in a nasty mess. And instead of climbing out, they dug themselves in deeper by insisting that the entire affair was a “personnel matter” – and a personnel matter has just absolutely got to be kept super-double secret.
That’s a seriously bad decision.
Yes, I understand that “the public’s right to know” often crosses into delicate territory. There are things that make us all a little squeamish, things we have a right to know that we’d rather not know. Some of those are things we have an obligation to know.
I don’t want to get off the point here, but we can all think of incidents where people delicately, squeamishly turned their backs on things they didn’t want to know about – and the results were horrendous: lives ruined, lives destroyed.
Let’s be clear: I am not – repeat, not – saying that the Basalt police chief case rises to the level of those terrible events (which I’m not even going to hint at – fill in the blanks on your own). I’m just saying that turning our backs on things we ought to know is a bad idea. And for a town to actively prevent people from knowing is really, really bad policy.
Let’s take a quick look at what we have right now:
• A complaint was filed against the chief of police, but we have no idea what was in the complaint or who filed it.
• The chief was suspended following the complaint, but we have no idea whether that complaint merited a suspension.
• The complaint was investigated and a report filed, but we have no idea what the report said.
• We have been told that the investigation ended “without a finding or implication of misconduct of any kind,” but that means we have no idea what did happen. If anything.
• The chief resigned after the investigation, but we have no idea why.
• The chief was given a settlement of about $84,000, but we have no idea whether he merited that payout.
Put it all together, and, sorry, that’s no way to run a town.
And now, one last little tidbit on top of the pile.
On Tuesday, Mike Scanlon, the new town manager (to whom I wish only the very best of luck), announced that the town will be actively soliciting public input (as bureaucrats say) on the hiring of a new police chief.
The Aspen Daily News quoted Scanlon as saying, “It’s very important to engage the citizens when we determine who will fill community policing (jobs).”
Oh yes, yes indeed, the public must be consulted and engaged when we hire our new police chief – but if, one of these days, we decide to kick that guy to the curb – well, then, John Q. Public better shut up and stay out of our way.
Because whatever a police chief might do that costs him his job is a “personnel matter,” and it’s none of your business.
And finally, saving the best for last, the Town Council has proudly declared that none of them has any idea what their investigation of the complaint against O’Connor found.
Indeed, they insist that they did not want to know, that they do not want to know, that they did not read the report and that they cheerfully voted for that $84,000 settlement from their position of proud, profound ignorance.
Which means we have no idea whether they are complete idiots, complete incompetents or complete … well, I don’t know what they are.
So, as I said right at the start, I am thoroughly ignorant about what really happened in Basalt. And that really bothers me.
Meanwhile, the people who are supposed to be running the town claim they are almost as ignorant as I am. And that doesn’t bother them at all.
Sorry, folks, that just is not right.
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