Of the many instances of departmental dysfunction described in materials released by the town of Basalt concerning the police force and former chief Roderick O’Connor, one could be viewed as being particularly petty.
O’Connor and Sgt. Penny Paxton, who made the complaint to town officials that spurred an investigation by the Mountain States Employers Council, were unable to get on the same page on many inter-office matters, including which type of uniforms officers should be using to suit up.
O’Connor resigned in November following the investigation, and took home an $84,000 severance package. He was placed on administrative leave in October after Paxton’s complaint. He has been given a conditional offer to become a patrol officer with the Aspen Police Department, a job he held before joining the Basalt force in 2007, and becoming chief in 2010.
Paxton cited a disagreement last year over seasonal uniform changes as an example of how O’Connor “undermines me at every opportunity” in a written statement included as an attachment to materials released Friday by the town of Basalt.
“I sent out an email to staff about seasonal uniform changes,” Paxton wrote. “Roderick countered that email by saying he didn’t want to change uniforms. The patrol staff was confused by the email and didn’t know what to do. Instead of coming to me and asking me about the decision I made about our uniforms, he sent out the email undermining my decision. It only confused the staff, they didn’t know which email to pay attention to.”
In O’Connor’s statement to Mountain States investigators, he gave his take on the uniform flap.
“Penny had sent an email to the staff telling them to start wearing their dark blue dress uniforms and pants beginning on approximately Labor Day,” according to O’Connor’s statement. “I stated in my email that I preferred the lighter uniforms during the warm early fall months. Most people ignored my comment and switched to the dark blue uniforms according to Penny’s email.”
Beyond the conflicting uniform directives, Paxton accused O’Connor of micro-managing her scheduling duties and personnel decisions, dragging his feet on giving her a promotion she was in line for and generally treating her with less respect and fairness than other people in the department. She chalked up her difficulties with O’Connor to a perceived gender bias. Jewel Heisig, administrative assistant for the department, also accused O’Connor of treating her in a condescending manner.
Mountain States investigators didn’t find evidence to back up the gender-bias claim, or any other actual wrong doing, but they did find department staff are “genuinely dissatisfied with Chief O’Connor’s management style,” according to the conclusion of the 46-page report. Mountain States’ investigation included interviews with six current and former department employees.
“While there is little to suggest bad intentions,” wrote David Vogel of Mountain States, “this investigator observes a disconnect between the chief’s perceptions and intentions, on the one hand, and the reality of his behavior and how his behavior affects employees of the [Basalt Police Department], on the other. ... His lack of objectivity about his own conduct also goes a long way in explaining how Chief O’Connor can maintain such a high self-image while nearly everyone else on staff harbors strong negative feelings toward him for a variety of reasons.”
The town of Basalt spent months fighting attempts by the local press to release the Mountain States report, claiming that since it is a personnel matter it is not a public document. The Aspen Times newspaper sued the town under open records laws in December, and a show-cause hearing was held last week in Eagle County District Court. During the course of the hearing, it came out that O’Connor had shared the report with Aspen police officials, and Times lawyers contended that action voided the confidentiality agreement the town had with O’Connor on the document. After meeting in executive session on Wednesday and Friday of last week, the Town Council voted to release the report.