Editorial: Basalt leadership failed in Roderick O’Connor ordeal
Basalt taxpayers paid a steep price for a lack of leadership in Town Hall over the Roderick O’Connor ordeal.
As the issue stands now, about $181,000 will come out of the town’s general fund for the investigation of complaints about the ex-police chief’s professional conduct, his settlement package and litigation spent in an unsuccessful effort to keep reasons of his departure private.
The dollar figure could go up or down, depending on whether a legal fight develops over the town’s refusal to pay the full amount of O’Connor’s settlement agreement.
Regardless of the final figure, a fair share of those funds was spent needlessly.
Basalt’s leadership failed on several levels for several reasons. It is clear that former Town Manager Bill Kane played a significant role in allowing an intolerable situation to escalate through lackadaisical personnel management. Kane is a visionary in land-use issues and helped get a couple of major proposed developments rolling in Basalt. He wasn’t so effective on day-to-day oversight and administration.
O’Connor served roughly two years as police chief without a formal review by Kane. A standard annual review, including a survey of employees, probably would have identified weaknesses in O’Connor’s management style and possibly would have nipped the civil war within the Police Department.
It’s clear that O’Connor had management problems. Complaints were widespread among his staff over belittling and demeaning treatment. O’Connor failed as a leader by not recognizing a genuine problem and working more effectively to address the concerns of his employees.
We question why a sergeant in the department triggered the issue by filing a major grievance after Kane had resigned and before his successor was in place. Police officers learn that patience is often necessary during investigations to ensure the best possible outcome. The officer should have waited until Mike Scanlon was in place as town manager to try to resolve the issue.
Mayor Jacque Whitsitt and the Town Council failed by sitting on their hands and refusing to intervene. Members of the council justified their inaction by noting that they would be required to sit as a quasi-judicial review board in case O’Connor appealed any decision by the town manager regarding his employment. The council said it had to remain impartial in case an appeal was filed.
The rule put the council in the awkward position of looking like dopes and telling the public the issue was out of its hands. That rule needs to be scrapped.
Even if you buy into the argument that the council couldn’t intervene, the board failed in a leadership role by blindly following the lead of Town Attorney Tom Smith. He advised the council that the investigation into O’Connor’s professional conduct and other documents could be kept private. Once the council bought in, it was forced to defend that position in court.
When the town’s position was challenged with litigation, the council should have reviewed its options with another attorney, a specialist in personnel law. Instead, it lost a court battle to The Aspen Times and will be forced to pay $45,000 for the newspaper’s legal fees as well as tens of thousands in legal fees by Smith.
One outstanding issue remains. The town reached an $84,000 settlement agreement with O’Connor. Half of that amount was paid when he departed in November. The remaining half was due May 1. The town is refusing to pay, maintaining that O’Connor violated confidentiality by sharing the investigation report, thus nullifying the settlement agreement. Maybe that’s a defendable position; maybe it’s not. The council needs to take command of the issue and do the right thing by paying O’Connor the remaining $42,000.
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