More than a dozen Salem citizens wrote to city leaders earlier this year, urging them to be transparent about the unusual departure of a top police official suspected of misconduct, according to recently released public records.
The city has been quiet about the February retirement of Deputy Police Chief Steve Bellshaw under a deal that paid him $53,500 that he hadn’t earned. Salem officials twice released records on the matter after Salem Reporter sought the intervention of the Marion County District Attorney.
In late August, Les Zaitz, Salem Reporter editor, asked citizens in a commentary to email then Interim City Manager Kristin Retherford and describe why they believed the community deserved information about the Bellshaw matter.
The news organization on Oct. 5 requested all emails sent to Retherford since July 28 related to Bellshaw’s departure and any responses to those emails. Six weeks later, the city provided 55 pages of records with four emails from people it considered citizens. The city assessed a fee of $460, waiving half and not releasing the records without payment of $230.
Salem Reporter alerted city officials that there was a considerable discrepancy between what they released and the number of emails in which citizens copied the news organization or advised of emails sent.
“It appears there was a technical issue (the nature of which I don’t have complete information on yet) which resulted in garbling some of the return results,” City Attorney Dan Atchison responded in an email. “IT was able to find the email you identified once the technical issue was addressed, so we are running the search again.”
The city took five days to turn over 26 pages of missing emails.
The complete batch of records, released Dec. 5, contained no response from the interim city manager to any of the 15 emails from citizens.
City Manager Keith Stahley didn’t respond to written questions about his office’s response to those citizen concerns or explain why nearly a dozen emails had not been properly disclosed.
The emails to Retherford highlighted the public interest in Bellshaw’s departure, calling on city officials to address questions and disclose records it has withheld about the matter:
- “Please reconsider the decision to keep the circumstances surrounding the Bellshaw payment, and the associated investigation into misconduct (an investigation that was cut short), out of the public eye.”
- “The public tax payers will be wondering what happened. $53K is a lot of money to keep quiet about.”
- “I am a reliable supporter of our police department. It does them no good to be mixed up in this kind of scandal. I will be in touch with my elected officials to demand an inquiry into this whole mess.”
- “I beseech you, Interim City Manager Kristin Retherford, and City of Salem to allay suspicions of coverup and communicate openly, honestly, and transparently, regarding Steven Bellshaw. It is of vital importance to instill public trust and confidence in government at all levels, specifically herein at local city level.”
The city issued a statement Oct. 5 asserting city officials tried and failed to hire a qualified third-party investigator. When Salem Reporter asked for records demonstrating the truth of the statement, the city responded that its burden to gather them outweighed the public interest in the documents. The city asked for $4,200 up front to consider the records, making no assurance that records it found would be released.
Salem Reporter sought donations from readers to cover the fee through its Disclosure Fund, which raised over $5,000 within three days. The news organization paid the fee but contested it in a petition to Clarkson’s office, asking her to order the fees be waived.
After Salem Reporter narrowed the scope of its request, the city revised its fee estimate to $1,100 and waived all fees – refunding the full $4,200.
The only records the city released in response to the request which it hadn’t previously disclosed were emails with two reporters with the Statesman Journal in October. The city asserted that all other relevant records were confidential under state law.
On Tuesday, the city denied a separate request for record of communications between Salem representatives and Bellshaw or any of his agents since Oct. 1, citing seven Oregon statutes. They include state laws intended to protect the attorney-client privilege, unreasonable invasion of privacy and information submitted to a public agency in confidence. The city also said it was withholding the records because they relate to a personnel investigation of a public safety employee that didn’t result in discipline
The city didn’t clarify in its denial what documents were withheld or the legal basis for keeping specific documents secret, despite Salem Reporter’s request seeking that information.
City officials have refused to release records or explain the allegations against Bellshaw, claiming state law wouldn’t allow it and that they had to protect the city’s legal work. But documents the city released last month showed an off-and-on effort to bring in an outside investigator.
Bellshaw’s attorney, Dan Thenell, told Salem Reporter in a November interview that Bellshaw was never told there would be an investigation. Thenell said talks to reach a settlement started with the city at the time Bellshaw was placed on administrative leave, which happened on Nov. 12, 2021.
Thenell did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
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.