The city of Salem was prepared in the fall to release key documents about the unusual departure of a top police official suspected of misconduct but stopped in the face of a legal threat from the former deputy chief, according to newly released records.
Salem city officials instead decided the documents were confidential even though Steve Bellshaw had retired under a special deal in which he was paid $53,500 in taxpayer money and agreed not to sue the city.
The city has been quiet about the deputy chief’s retirement in February 2022 and has resisted disclosing anything about the matter in the seven months since Salem Reporter requested Bellshaw’s separation agreement with the city.
The new documents show the city intended to disclose records to the public in November about Bellshaw’s departure. But the city ultimately refused to release any part of the records after Bellshaw’s attorney, Dan Thenell, threatened legal action against the city.
Salem officials sought to keep the records secret from the public even after Thenell later told Salem Reporter in January that he didn’t object to disclosure of the documents. Thenell didn’t respond to recent requests to reconcile his contradictory actions.
The city released its emails with Thenell on Feb. 2 under orders from Marion County District Attorney Paige Clarkson.
In December, Salem Reporter requested communications between the city and Bellshaw starting in October – eight months after Bellshaw retired from the city.
The records show City Attorney Dan Atchison notified Thenell on Nov. 21 that the city was preparing that week to release three documents related to the Bellshaw matter. The city intended to release a “summary of circumstances” leading to Bellshaw’s retirement, a memo from Police Chief Trevor Womack to human resources and the city attorney’s office requesting a personnel investigation, and an arbitration decision involving Bellshaw.
Thenell in his response said that he had never previously seen the memo from the chief, adding that disclosure of the city’s summary “may likely result in civil liability for the city” by portraying Bellshaw in a false light. He said disclosure may also violate state and federal law because Bellshaw “has not had a name clearing hearing.”
Atchison responded that the city could release the records under Oregon law if the public interest requires disclosure, or if the city determines that keeping the information secret would damage the public’s trust in city government.
But the city denied releasing even its correspondence with Bellshaw’s attorney, citing a host of laws to justify its position.
Public officials are protected from liability under state law for any loss or damages if they release public records when there is no legal restriction.
Salem Reporter sought an order from the district attorney to require disclosure of the documents, a process allowed under Oregon’s public records law. The news organization included emails from Salem citizens last year to the city describing why they believed the community deserved information about the Bellshaw matter.
While considering the matter, Clarkson in a Feb. 1 opinion said Salem Reporter “has made numerous requests of the city for documents related to the departure of Mr. Bellshaw and has expressed frustration in the little information made publicly available. SR has even included calls from readers for city transparency.”
Clarkson determined that the three email attachments were confidential because the city could face legal action if they are disclosed, but noted that Thenell’s statements to Salem Reporter “are illuminating as to the potential validity of that concern.”
She disagreed with the city’s argument that the emails themselves were protected by the attorney-client privilege, finding that even if they were protected, the public interest “outweighs the need for the exemption.” She did so in part by explaining that disclosing just the emails would help the community understand why the city had released limited records in the matter.
The city disclosed the emails to Salem Reporter the following day to comply with Clarkson’s order. It was the second time that Clarkson has overruled the city’s efforts to keep all the documents on the Bellshaw matter out of public hands.
City officials have refused to 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 in November showed an off-and-on effort to bring in an outside investigator.
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.
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.