Salem city officials are refusing to explain why a longtime Salem Police Department deputy chief retired with a special agreement earlier this year while he was under investigation for misconduct.
The city notified Salem Reporter on Friday, Aug. 5, that it would keep confidential records sought by Salem Reporter detailing the allegations against Deputy Chief Steve Bellshaw.
They did release an agreement the city hoped to keep confidential showing that Bellshaw was paid an extra $53,500 in taxpayer money when he retired from the Salem police in February after 32 years.
The records sought by Salem Reporter would give the community information about misconduct allegations leveled against Bellshaw, which prompted an investigation by the department and subsequently the state, according to what records have been provided to the news organization.
The records being kept from the public could also show what actions city officials took to investigate the allegations.
The city said it would not release the records of any official misconduct complaints filed against Bellshaw and any records compiled for an internal investigation of the former deputy chief. The city’s response, provided more than three weeks after Salem Reporter’s request, justified the secrecy on a state law that protects internal police investigations from disclosure in most circumstances.
According to the separation agreement executed earlier this year and obtained by Salem Reporter through a separate public records request, Bellshaw wanted to “voluntarily retire” as deputy police chief.
Bellshaw declined to discuss the agreement when contacted by Salem Reporter on July 27, saying that he retired under what he described as “a private settlement between the city and I.”
The city agreed to “severance pay” of $53,500 to be paid on Feb. 15, the date of Bellshaw’s retirement. The agreement was signed by Bellshaw on Jan. 31 and by then-City Manager Steve Powers on Feb. 1.
The bonus was paid with money from the Salem Police Department general fund, according to Courtney Knox Busch, Salem’s strategic initiatives manager.
The general fund pays for most routine city services including police, fire, municipal court and library and parks operations, and is largely funded through property taxes.
The city only released the agreement after Salem Reporter sought an order from the Marion County District Attorney’s office. On July 25, the news organization petitioned District Attorney Paige Clarkson for an order requiring the city to immediately release the agreement requested more than two weeks prior, arguing that its release was in the public’s interest and the delay in disclosure was impeding that interest.
Before its release, city spokesman John Winn declined to say why the agreement was arranged, its terms or the cost to the city.
“Those questions may be answered in documentation per your records request and I prefer that that information, if available, come through the proper channels,” he said in an email July 27.
But the document, when released, did not clarify why the agreement was arranged.
Explaining the severance payment, Knox Busch wrote in an email that, “Deputy Chief Bellshaw was a long-term employee of Salem Police Department and provided decades of service to the city and community. The decision to separate was mutual, and the severance provided is consistent with that provided when any long-tenured employee separates through mutual agreement, and was intended to allow him to transition post-separation.”
Knox Busch clarified on Monday that “it is not the city’s practice or policy to issue severance at retirement.”
Bellshaw’s retirement came while he was under investigation by his own department, according to the agreement.
When a police officer leaves an agency, the agency is required to report the departure to the state Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, which licenses officers and investigates complaints of misconduct.
Salem police wrote on its form that Bellshaw voluntarily retired with an agreement for severance pay, noting that “no investigatory work was undertaken,” according to the form, signed by Salem police Sgt. Jeffrey Wiedemann and dated Feb. 14.
But another portion of the state form asked if the separation was the result of a settlement agreement, and whether it was the result – “even in part” – of an active or pending investigation into allegations of misconduct involving Bellshaw. Both were marked “yes,” the form showed.
That triggered more questions from the state agency, according to acting director Brian Henson.
Henson said the Salem Police Department confirmed in a July 27 email to his licensing agency that Bellshaw was under investigation at time of separation.
The state agency opened its own professional standards investigation of Bellshaw on May 9. That investigation remains active, according to state records.
On July 13, Salem Reporter requested under the public records law any official misconduct complaints and investigatory records involving Bellshaw held by the city. The agency initially estimated it would cost more than $500 to process the records, indicated records might be released and then concluded every record was off limits. The notice from the city was generic – no city official signed it.
Knox Busch said Friday the city was withholding the records because they relate to a personnel investigation of a public safety employee that didn’t result in discipline. She also said the documents were protected by attorney-client privilege.
But the state law Knox Busch cited is intended to shield police officers from public disclosure of allegations investigated and not sustained. With Bellshaw, the city entered a separation agreement before the internal investigation concluded.
The city is also required under Oregon law to separate material that is exempt from documents that can’t be withheld. The city didn’t provide a summary of documents withheld as requested Friday by Salem Reporter.
Knox Busch said the time the city took to respond to the document request was “not excessive” for records requiring a search from multiple departments or relating to personnel matters for a public safety employee. She also said the city and its police department are short-staffed.
On Monday, Salem Reporter petitioned Clarkson for an order requiring the city to immediately release the records, arguing their release is in the public’s interest. The district attorney’s office is required by law to rule on a public records petition within seven business days.
Salem Reporter sent written questions about the Bellshaw matter to Mayor Chuck Bennett and all eight Salem city councilors. They were asked whether they knew about the city policy granting severance to retiring employees, Bellshaw’s severance pay and whether they supported the practice.
City policy requires the council approval of any payment of $50,000 or more made to settle a lawsuit against the city. Bellshaw had not sued the city.
Bennett and Councilors Chris Hoy and Micki Varney said they did not have information about Bellshaw’s retirement.
“The mayor and council are not involved in individual personnel actions. The only employee subject to direct mayor and council action is the city manager,” Bennett said in an email Friday.
Hoy, the city’s mayor-elect, said he was not aware of such a policy, or that Bellshaw was paid severance.
“I don’t have enough information about this situation to offer an opinion. Generally speaking, I trust the acting city manager and her staff to make professional decisions and judgments in the best interest of the city. Nothing in the information you presented causes me concern,” he said in an email Friday.
Councilor Virginia Stapleton said Tuesday that she wasn’t aware of the matter and “looked into this with staff.”
“This is something that staff took care of without council’s input which is not out of the ordinary,” she said in an email
Councilor Jose Gonzalez said Tuesday in an email that he was “more than willing to look into this” and asked if something about Bellshaw’s departure raised concern.
Councilors Tom Andersen, Trevor Phillips, Jackie Leung and Vanessa Nordyke didn’t respond.
Bellshaw joined Salem police in 1989. He was promoted to sergeant in 1998, lieutenant in 2004 and deputy chief in 2007, according to state Department of Public Safety Standards and Training records.
He managed the department’s support division. The Oregon Attorney General’s Sexual Assault Task Force’s website listed him as an instructor as of Monday.
Bellshaw was paid about $160,000 annually. His final paycheck, which included two days of leave and accrued benefits payout, was $27,769, Winn said.
Bellshaw’s quiet retirement was unusual for a senior police executive.
The police department has routinely announced the retirement of other officers with fanfare, such as in a 2018 press release recognizing three veteran officers’ retirement ceremony.
When Jason Van Meter left the agency as a lieutenant after 17 years to accept a position as police chief of the Black Butte Ranch Police Department in Sisters, his departure was announced via a department press release and social media post praising him for his years of service to Salem.
Bellshaw’s retirement, meanwhile, came with no press release or social media posts from the Salem police or the city.
Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.
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Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.