Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Becker Says He Didn’t Handle Burbank Situation Correctly

Well, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker didn’t actually apologize for forcing former Police Chief Chris Burbank to resign last June, but he told KSL Radio’s Doug Wright Thursday morning that he (Becker) didn’t handle the chief’s departure appropriately.

In short, Becker is still feeling the public’s heat over the firing “of a man with this enormous stature” – as Becker put it.

Becker already knew of the UtahPolicy poll conducted soon after Burbank’s departure, which showed many in the city didn’t approve of the firing, or at least didn’t like the way it was handled.

Here is the UtahPolicy Dan Jones poll on the subject.

But Becker, a Democrat seeking a third term, told Wright that in walking door-to-door in his re-election campaign, he finds citizens don’t understand many of the issues over Burbank’s leaving.

And the fact that Becker asked to appear on the Wright show indicates that the mayor needs to reach a lot of folks to explain himself on this subject, and he needs to do it sooner rather than later in this fall’s election.

Becker, in an upset, finished second to former Democratic state legislator Jackie Biskupski in the August primary.

And the mayor is clearly in political trouble.

So Thursday he decided to try to explain his Burbank actions – which are clearly still hurting him politically.

The irony of this is that it was Burbank’s refusal to follow Becker’s instructions on a female sexual harassment issue involving a former deputy police chief that cost the chief his job.

And one may think that many city dwellers – especially liberal women – would support Becker’s actions.

After all, Burbank’s actions can fairly be seen as protecting a personal male friend, a top aide, even after the deputy clearly sexually harassed three female police officers – who are suing the city – and whose suit broke the whole Burbank issue last spring.

Said Becker of Burbank’s firing: “With someone of the public stature. . . . it needed to handled different. And I didn’t.”

“It should have been handled better,” said Becker. “There was a real uproar in the community; they didn’t understand the background.”

Becker said in hindsight he should have taken more time, both in regards to Burbank’s tenure in office and in letting the public know what was happening in this situation and the police department.

But, and I’m paraphrasing here, Burbank had pissed off Becker: Over a 12-month timeframe Burbank had promised to demote the deputy chief, and let it be known within the department why he was being demoted, and to make other changes to improve the culture of sexual harassment within the department.

But, says Becker, Burbank didn’t do it.

That resulted in Becker giving Burbank a private letter of reprimand.

“(Burbank) cancelled meetings” with Becker, his boss, over the deputy chief. Becker agreed to another meeting, only to have Burbank go on vacation.

A week before the showdown in the mayor’s office – where Becker told the chief to sign a letter outlining Burbank’s inappropriate responses to the harassment issue or resign or be fired – Becker said he had a “heated conversation” with the chief.

“He knew his handling” of the sexual harassment, claim “was completely unacceptable to me.”

Becker told Wright that all this information is publically available on the mayor’s website:

Why is Becker bringing all this old stuff up now – in the middle of a re-election campaign?

Isn’t this just political damage control?

Becker denies it – a bit ingenious of him – saying that he just needs to communicate to city residents the actual history of the events, because it is part of being a good mayor.

Becker said close aides, and others, told him before the Burbank action, that firing or forcing a popular police chief to resign may well hurt his re-election.

But Becker says he ignored those concerns – says his campaign staff knew nothing beforehand of the mayor’s decision to force Burbank to sign the letter of responsibility or leave his post.

“This all came to a head quickly” last June, said Becker.

And now apparently Becker regrets those events – and wishes he’d handled the Burbank matter differently.

But it may be too late.

Becker now looks a bit desperate.

He may say he’s only trying to communicate real facts to voters. And that may be.

Still, Becker – who told Wright he doesn’t make “political” decisions but does what he believes is best for the city, no matter what – has been tone deaf before to political pitfalls in his administration.

Being a good politician is part of being a good elected public administrator.

The two are not mutually exclusive, but go hand in hand.

Becker is a smart, mild-mannered guy.

I’ve known and watched him for years.

He doesn’t talk before thinking; he doesn’t jump before looking.

How ironic that he could be brought down, in part, by what even Becker says was seen by the public as an uncharacteristic rash decision, made in the heat of the moment, to bring to heel a guy who was not taking appropriate action on the serious question of sexual harassment in a city department.

Punished not for doing right, but for how you did right.