Officers and staff at the Basalt Police Department uniformly denounced former police chief Roderick O’Connor’s leadership, communication and interpersonal skills, while he defended his actions as well-intentioned efforts to improve the agency.
That’s according to 138 pages related to a workplace investigation of O’Connor that the town of Basalt released Friday evening.
After its second emergency meeting this week, the Basalt Town Council emerged from an executive session and voted unanimously to release the documents that are at the heart of a lawsuit filed by The Aspen Times’ parent company.
“We analyzed the bejesus out of it, and it’s fully cooked,” Mayor Jacque Whitsitt said of releasing a 46-page report that is a major part of the investigation.
Many residents wrote letters to Aspen’s newspapers backing O’Connor after he was put on administrative leave in October amid the inquiry by Basalt’s former town manager. O’Connor resigned in late November after the investigation – which concluded “without a finding or implication of misconduct of any kind,” the town said in a press release at the time.
The Times sued the town in December for the release of the report by Mountain States Employers Council (MSEC), an outside human-resources firm. The town until Friday had maintained that the report was protected as a personnel matter and that its disclosure would violate a confidentiality agreement between the local government and O’Connor.
Smith, representing the town, went to court this week for a show-cause hearing on why the report should be kept confidential.
But O’Connor’s disclosure that he allowed the Aspen Police Department to see the report greatly weakened the town’s legal argument, Times attorney Tom Kelley said last week. Aspen’s police chief confirmed Wednesday that he had reviewed the documents as part of a background check, after the department made O’Connor a conditional offer to be a patrol officer.
The Aspen Police Department is the third party, following O’Connor and some Basalt officials, to have seen the report
The fact that a third party outside of the original two parties to O’Connor’s settlement agreement had seen the report damages Basalt’s contention that its disclosure is limited to only O’Connor and town officials, Kelley said.
Basalt Town Attorney Tom Smith agreed. He declined to discuss his advice to Town Council, calling it attorney-client privilege, but told reporters afterward that the only reason the report was released to the public was O’Connor’s disclosure of it to Aspen police.
The investigation lasted Oct. 16-22, wrote David Vogel, an MSEC workplace investigator, in the newly released report.
Judi Tippetts, the town’s finance director, contacted MSEC “to perform a management assessment and a workplace investigation into allegations made by Penny Paxton,” a sergeant in the Basalt police force.
Paxton alleged that O’Connor mistreated her because of her gender, including failing to promote her in a timely fashion; excluding her from certain meetings; and generally acting in a condescending manner in the workplace, including placing printed copies of emails on her desk that he had already sent her.
Vogel wrote that he interviewed O’Connor several times, and that if the former top cop was “influenced by anti-female animus, it would likely have become apparent …
“The question for this investigator is whether Sgt. Paxton’s perception is reasonable,” Vogel wrote. “Those emails do not seem … to be ‘condescending’ or otherwise inappropriate when considered in isolation. … it does not seem unusual for a chief to issue such orders to a sergeant.
“Furthermore, the tone of the emails seems to this investigator to be rather benign.”
On the other hand, Vogel said in his report that it appears that O’Connor “has never explained to Sgt. Paxton why he frequently relies on email to communicate with her [nor] why he often gives her paper copies of the emails.”
A lack of effective communication between O’Connor and Paxton appears to be a systemic problem, Vogel’s report says.
The MSEC investigator wrote that he believed O’Connor’s “apparent lack of respect for Sgt. Paxton is much more complex than simply attributing it to [her] gender.”
But Vogel’s account was not limited to the row between Paxton and O’Connor.
The report’s summary statements “indicate across-the-board dissatisfaction with Chief O’Connor among the staff of the [Basalt Police Department], regardless of gender.”
Vogel wrote that morale among staff at the time he interviewed them was generally low. One officer said that O’Connor was a “chief in absentia — an invisible chief because [we] rarely see him. He is rarely in the office,” the report says.
During one of his interviews, O’Connor acknowledged to Vogel that the environment at the time was strained among Basalt authorities.
“In general I think morale is good, but I know we are overworked and understaffed,” O’Connor said, according to the report. “We are the lowest-paid department in the valley.”
Other officers apparently told Vogel that they resented being forced to read “self-help books” like “Attitude is Everything.”
The release of other documents and establishing attorney fees for the legal fight will now be up to Judge Mark Thompson of Eagle County District Court, Smith said.