BASALT - Basalt officials felt that giving a severance package to former Police Chief Roderick O'Connor was better than risking a legal fight with him and was a way to end a community uproar over his suspension.
Town Manager Mike Scanlon said a $83,944 cash-and-benefits settlement was more cost-effective than risking a protracted legal battle with O'Connor. Such a battle might have unfolded if the town had taken disciplinary action against him, which was undetermined at the time O'Connor decided to resign Nov. 23.
Mayor Jacque Whitsitt said the settlement also appealed to her as a way to end community debate over why O'Connor had been suspended during an investigation into his professional conduct. Some Basalt residents had lobbied the Town Council to intervene and retain O'Connor. Several letters to the editors of local newspapers accused members of the Police Department of trying to force O'Connor out.
"The public was out of control with anger," Whitsitt said. "You don't want to let it keep going."
Severance deals aren't the norm in Basalt when a top official in the government retires or resigns. Former Town Managers Bill Efting and Bill Kane as well as former Police Chief Keith Ikeda got a hearty thanks from town officials but no cash when they quit. Efting departed in 2009 while Ikeda left in 2010. Kane departed last year.
Scanlon and Whitsitt said in recent interviews that O'Connor's departure was negotiated and not the typical case of an executive resigning. O'Connor's future as the town's top cop was unsettled prior to his resignation Nov. 23.
"At the time of his resignation, Rod was the subject of an ongoing investigation," said Scanlon, who took the post Oct. 31 and inherited the personnel matter.
Kane had hired a human-resources consulting firm to review O'Connor's professional conduct after Sgt. Penny Paxton filed a formal complaint about the chief in September. She contended that O'Connor treated her differently from other officers in the department.
An investigation by Mountain States Employers Council didn't find evidence of gender bias. However, four other current employees of the department in addition to Paxton and one former officer unanimously criticized O'Connor's management skills and style. Multiple complaints were described in the Mountain States report.
Scanlon had to determine if O'Connor's action warranted disciplinary action or firing. If he had recommended action, the Town Council would have been required to review his advice and decide whether the action would be imposed. That process is established in the town code.
"Had that happened, there would then be the potential for a lawsuit to challenge the action taken, if any," Scanlon said, noting it's common to see litigation over employment matters.
Scanlon said he was uncertain the town would have won litigation over an employment dispute.
"Our quasi-judicial process would have been fraught with problems," he said. "All of this had the potential to be time-consuming and expensive."
Scanlon said he told O'Connor at one point during negotiations that he was willing to let him keep his job as police chief if he could produce a plan for fixing the problems in the department. O'Connor opted to resign and asked for severance pay, Scanlon said.
The Town Council agreed to provide the severance package because a potential protracted legal dispute could have been more expensive, according to Scanlon, and it would have detracted from "more important town business."
The council felt "it was in the best interests of the town to bring the controversy to a close," Scanlon said.
"(O'Connor) had an attorney, and there was going to be a public fight," she said.
Whitsitt defended the severance package and said it's justifiable in some cases.
"This is not an uncommon occurrence," Whitsitt said. "It happens all the time."
As part of the settlement, the town and O'Connor agreed the Mountain States report would remain confidential. O'Connor was reinstated from paid suspension immediately before he resigned Nov. 23. A joint statement by the parties stressed no disciplinary action was taken due to the report. It also said O'Connor's resignation was voluntary.
While the town averted a fight with O'Connor, the confidentiality of the report triggered a legal battle with The Aspen Times. The newspaper sued to get the report released. The town relented after it was disclosed during a hearing in Eagle County District Court that O'Connor allowed Aspen Police Department officials to read the report as part of his application for a job.
Whitsitt said the Town Council had sanctioned the lawsuit to keep the report confidential because it felt the town had the responsibility to protect the privacy of a personnel file. That could be a costly decision. The Times and Basalt are now battling over whether the town must pay the newspaper's legal fees.