The city of Salem said Monday it would take a full work week at a cost of $4,200 to provide the public records that back up a city statement explaining its silence on the departure of a top police official suspected of misconduct.
The city has been quiet about the retirement of Deputy Police Chief Steve Bellshaw, but issued a statement Oct. 5 asserting city officials tried and failed to hire a third-party investigator that was qualified.
Salem Reporter asked for documents on which the statement was based. The city responded that the burden on the city to gather them outweighed the public interest in the documents, so it asked for $4,200 up front to consider the records.
The city made no assurance that records it found would be released.
Bellshaw retired from the city in February while he faced a misconduct investigation, paid an extra $53,500 in taxpayer money in a deal with the city. But an investigation was never done, and Salem city officials for months have refused to release government records about the matter.
Courtney Knox Busch, the city’s strategic initiatives manager, wrote in a statement Oct. 5 that the city decided to hire a third-party investigator but “had difficulty in finding an investigator that had both significant experience with public safety employee matters and who had the capacity to take on the work in a timely manner.”
City manager Keith Stahley repeated that in his own public statement two days later.
Knox Busch said much of that work was done by city attorneys and is off limits because of the attorney-client privilege.
“The city understands the interest in this matter, however, in order to comply with Oregon law and protect the privacy of persons involved in the investigatory process, the city is unable to provide more information about the investigation or circumstances preceding it,” she said.
“In regard to the investigation and circumstances preceding Steve Bellshaw’s retirement from the city of Salem, the city is unable to share information or discuss specifics,” Knox Busch wrote. “Oregon law prohibits the release of information concerning the investigation of a public safety officer when that investigation did not lead to discipline.”
“The city initiated an investigation of former Deputy Chief Bellshaw in response to allegations of potential violations of city human resources rules,” she said. “Before the City was able to engage a third party investigator to work on the matter, Mr. Bellshaw retired pursuant to a separation agreement.”
On Oct. 17, Salem Reporter requested public records factually supporting or relied on in Knox Busch’s statement.
Two weeks later, the city on Monday said it estimated the records would cost $4,225 and take city employees nearly 44 hours to round up the documents — the equivalent of a full-time person working a full week. The email said that process would include employees at the city’s Human Resources Department, the Salem Police Department, city recorder’s office and city manager’s office. The hourly rate to be charged ranged from $51 to $113.
Knox Busch did not respond to written questions Monday about what sources she relied on for her statement, whether it was reviewed by the city attorney’s office before release, how long it took her to prepare or why it would take a full work week to provide public records supporting her public statement.
Records show that while the city intended to investigate, it never proceeded. The misconduct allegations against Bellshaw have not been disclosed and he has previously declined comment.
The city for months has resisted disclosing anything about the Bellshaw matter. Its arrangement with him called for both the city and Bellshaw to keep the agreement confidential.
In August, the city released the agreement after Salem Reporter sought legal recourse to force its disclosure.
The city refused to provide records about the allegations or its investigation and Clarkson’s office backed that position when Salem Reporter sought disclosure.
In legal arguments in that matter, City Attorney Michelle Teed disclosed Salem officials couldn’t find an investigator.
The city subsequently refused to release letters from Chief Trevor Womack notifying Bellshaw of his placement on administrative leave and about the city misconduct investigation. After Salem Reporter contested the secrecy, Clarkson ordered the city to release the records “as soon as practicable.”
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.