The City of Salem slogan, At Your Service, deserves to be changed to At Your Secret Service, given the lengths city officials have gone to preserve a veil of secrecy over Deputy Police Chief Steve Bellshaw's highly unusual $53,500 taxpayer payment as he was leaving his position under suspicious circumstances.
The Salem Reporter has been doggedly trying to pry what should be public information out of the closed fist of city officials. Here's how their newest story on this subject starts out.
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.
So much for hopes that the new City Manager, Keith Stahley, would bring with him an increased commitment to transparency. It sure looks like he's endorsing the same approach his predecessor practiced: make it as difficult as possible for the public to learn how their tax dollars are being spent.
When a government agency refuses to reveal information to journalists or concerned citizens, almost always it's because they're trying to hide something. In this case, it's what Bellshaw was being investigated for, and why the City of Salem gave him $53,500 rather than pursue the investigation.
It's bizarre that an on-again, off-again investigation into wrongdoing by Deputy Chief Bellshaw ended up not with Bellshaw being held accountable for whatever he did, but with him getting what appears to be a hefty hush money payment when he decided to retire.
Though it's impossible to know exactly what went on here given the refusal of city officials to come clean about the investigation into Bellshaw and the $53,500 payment, my suspicion is that whatever Bellshaw did, disclosing it would have made both Bellshaw and the Salem Police Department look bad, so city officials decided to let Bellshaw retire with a big bonus in hopes the whole wrongdoing thing would just go away.
Which, it might, since it doesn't look like the City of Salem is ever going to release the records requested by the Salem Reporter. Here's how their story ends.
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.