Editorial: Silt owes residents a little transparency | PostIndependent.com

Editorial: Silt owes residents a little transparency

Silt residents deserve an explanation from the city about what the heck has been going on with their police department.

Levy Burris, the town’s police chief for 10 years, retired suddenly last month.

You might expect that a small town with little crime would throw a nice coffee-and-cake reception to wish a veteran law officer well. That’s not what happened, though.

On Jan. 6, Burris and Town Administrator Pamela Woods signed a separation document that granted Burris $18,871.14 in severance and $16,016.29 for unused leave. (After he was paid for four months while he was on leave and under investigation.)

The frosting on this $35,000 going-away cake is Silt’s promise, in its separation agreement with Burris, to do everything in its power to keep the public in the dark about why the chief left.

Silt pledged “that it will take reasonable action under the attorney-client privilege, work product doctrine and/or the deliberative process privilege to attempt to protect any report, summary and/or substantive communications related to the investigations completed in 2016 by independent investigator, Heather Coogan. The Employer may produce such materials upon court order, but shall request the materials be produced subject to a protective order.”

So, Silt residents, here are some other things the town didn’t tell you:

• Burris was placed on paid leave Sept. 7 and never went back to work.

• A week before that, two things happened:

1. A police officer (who later left his job) sent an email to the town administrator whose contents are being kept secret because it contained “info relating to investigation carried out pursuant to Police Department policy.”

2. Mayor Rick Aluise filed a “notice of claim” against the city for what Aluise called “a campaign of harassment and abuse of police power.”

• Investigator Coogan delivered her report Nov. 1 to Denver lawyers who specialize in insurance defense litigation.

• On Nov. 14, the lawyers briefed town trustees in executive session on recommendations apparently stemming from the investigation.

• Burris informed the town on Dec. 20 that he would retire, a decision that he described to the Post Independent as a “mutual agreement.”

No record of any of this shows up in Town Council. No public announcements were made, start to finish.

While employers must be circumspect regarding personnel issues, it’s incumbent on a town government to tell a community that its police chief is on paid leave. It’s both a matter of public safety and — well, it’s the residents’ money that’s paying him and everyone else in town government.

We also believe that Silt residents deserve a characterization of the investigative findings. All that’s public about them is what Burris told the PI last week: That “multiple issues” came up.

If that’s not a red flag that begs a little government transparency, we don’t know what is.

It’s not just Silt residents who need to know more about this. Burris says he wants to work in law enforcement again.

That might be great. It’s difficult to recruit qualified law officers to our area, and Burris is a veteran who worked for the Glenwood Springs PD and Garfield County Sheriff’s Office before becoming Silt chief.

But other law enforcement agencies and the public they serve really need to know more about these “multiple issues” and what’s in Coogan’s report that merits the secrecy clause in Burris’ retirement agreement.

This also is a case that shows the value of public transparency.

Again, issues such as this are touchy and fraught with personnel and privacy concerns. It takes some thoughtful work to decide what the public can know. But the town already is working with sophisticated outside counsel that could help it navigate these waters.

Transparency quells rumors, helps those affected (and who often pay the freight) understand what’s happened and fosters productive conversation.

Transparency improves employee relations. Think about how you feel about an employer or boss who is open with you about challenges versus those who tell you nothing, even when you know something is going on.

Transparency improves customer relations. Think about the experience of reporting a problem and getting a company that accepts responsibility versus one that blames you or throws up its hands.

It’s worth noting here that the Silt trustees had a discussion Nov. 28 about “the town getting away from customer service” and residents who “feel like nothing is going to happen” if they go to Town Hall with their concerns.

Over the past few months, the PI has gotten calls and emails from Silt residents concerned about damage from a water main break for which the city won’t pay and about rumors that “our police chief is gone” or “our police chief is under investigation.”

Now, as the town embarks on a search for Burris’ successor, it should make public a list of issues that led to it to this point and action items needed to restore faith in local government.

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