Marion County District Attorney Paige Clarkson on Friday ordered the city of Salem to release records showing that a top police official was put on administrative leave last year while suspected of misconduct.
The city complied with the order on Monday, providing two records that showed that Deputy Police Chief Steve Bellshaw was assigned last November to work away from city offices while under investigation. But an investigation was never done and Bellshaw instead retired from the Salem Police Department in February, paid an extra $53,500 in taxpayer money in a deal with the city.
City officials for months refused to disclose government records about the matter, contending that there was no public interest requiring disclosure of the misconduct matter. That included claims that even documents ordering Bellshaw to work remotely couldn’t be disclosed.
But Clarkson Friday sided with Salem Reporter, ordering the city to release letters from Chief Trevor Womack notifying Bellshaw of his placement on administrative leave and a city misconduct investigation.
READ IT: District attorney’s order
The city and Bellshaw struck a deal earlier this year which they sought to keep from the public.
The state’s police licensing agency, the Oregon Department of Professional Safety Standards and Training, opened its own investigation of Bellshaw on May 9. It did so based on the city’s report to the agency that Salem officials had a pending investigation of Bellshaw when he left.
Salem officials previously said records about the Bellshaw matter should be kept confidential because he was not disciplined after a personnel investigation and because most of the records had been given to the city attorney’s office.
But records show that while the city intended to open an investigation, it never proceeded. The nature of the misconduct allegations against Bellshaw have not been disclosed and he has previously declined comment.
The separation agreement, released only after Salem Reporter sought legal recourse to force its disclosure, notes that the agreement was entered in lieu of “furthering a personnel investigation.”
The city has otherwise disclosed the misconduct allegations weren’t pursued.
A police department official reported to the state licensing agency on Feb. 14: “No investigatory work was undertaken.”
John Winn, a former city spokesman, wrote in an email, that “an investigation was contemplated, but neither initiated nor completed” and that “no determination was made regarding the appropriateness of conduct.”
Michelle Teed, an assistant city attorney, wrote to Clarkson’s office that “a professional standards investigation was opened, but was not completed due to the unavailability of qualified investigators and Mr. Bellshaw’s retirement.”
Salem Reporter on Aug. 24 requested records regarding the effort to hire an investigator and more than a month later, the city said not a single document would be released. The city said the documents were off limits because it was work done by attorneys.
City Manager Keith Stahley said Monday he couldn’t explain the city’s inability to find an investigator, referring questions to the city attorney’s office.
City Attorney Dan Atchison said in an email that an assistant city attorney sought an outside investigator for the Bellshaw matter.
“Many of the investigators that were considered were busy with other clients and couldn’t begin the work for several months and others were unavailable for other reasons beyond the city’s control or lacked expertise in the public safety context,” Atchison wrote.
Womack didn’t respond to emailed questions about the effort to find a qualified investigator.
Teed first disclosed the city couldn’t find an investigator in responding to a petition that Salem Reporter filed with Clarkson Aug. 8. The news organization had sought an order to turn over records of any official misconduct complaints filed against Bellshaw and any records compiled for an internal investigation of the former deputy chief.
Clarkson’s office denied that petition on Aug. 22.
Salem Reporter again petitioned Clarkson on Sept. 19, this time seeking an order requiring the city to release the administrative leave letter with supporting documents.
Included in the petition was a sampling of emails citizens wrote directly to Salem officials about the city’s efforts to keep the Bellshaw records secret, citing the need for public confidence and oversight.
READ IT: Salem Reporter’s petition
Teed dismissed those concerns in her response on Sept. 27.
“Even if there is a handful of emails from the public about this matter, that is not reflective of the city as a whole,” she wrote.
Teed said the city had two relevant documents, but didn’t need to release them because they were part of a professional standards investigation.
READ IT: City response to petition
Salem Reporter challenged that justification, writing that the city never contested evidence submitted by the news organization that there was no personnel investigation in the Bellshaw matter.
READ IT: Salem Reporter’s rebuttal
Clarkson said in her order on Friday that she found the administrative leave letter and supporting documents only provided notice of an investigation and, “with some minor appropriate redaction, may be disclosed as they do not contain any actual investigatory material or information.”
She ordered the city to disclose the documents to Salem Reporter “as soon as practicable.”
Those communications showed Bellshaw was put on administrative leave on Nov. 12, 2021, notified by the chief that he was not to visit any city of Salem property not open to the general public while on leave. The records indicate Bellshaw was assigned to work from home, required to check in each morning by phone with the chief. An examination of Bellshaw’s city email records showed that in his last 60 days on duty, he sent a single email.
Nearly three months after the news organization requested the separation agreement on July 12, city officials still haven’t fully explained why Bellshaw’s departure came with an unearned $53,500 in taxpayer money.
Teed said in her response to Salem Reporter’s petition that publicly disclosing negotiations between Bellshaw and the city “would have a wide-ranging and substantial chilling effect on the business of the city in many different areas.”
“The City considered various factors, and arrived at a mutually agreeable figure that was reasonable based on Mr. Bellshaw’s experience and the circumstances. Providing details of the incremental back-and-forth would not aid the public and in fact would hurt future negotiations of all kinds,” she wrote. “If parties negotiating with the city cannot rely on the legal protections generally available, and must anticipate every email, every question, every point and counterpoint to be made widely available to the general public, this would severely limit the City’s ability to effectively and efficiently manage its affairs, and would lead to lead to an increase in litigation and other costs.”
Bellshaw and his attorney didn’t respond to a request for comment Monday.
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.