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SALT LAKE CITY — Mayor Ralph Becker said Thursday he regrets the way the forced resignation of former Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank played out nearly three months ago.
"It could have been handled better, and it probably should have been handled better," Becker admitted. "It was a very difficult situation."
The mayor said the entire incident happened hastily.
"I was feeling pressure for a variety of reasons, and I acted abruptly," Becker said during an interview on KSL Newsradio's "Doug Wright Show." "In retrospect, I should have both given him more time (and) given the public more time to understand the circumstances, but it was not set up for a particular outcome other than I wanted to have that matter addressed and resolved."
In the nearly three months since the mayor forced Burbank to resign in the wake of a pending sexual harassment lawsuit by three female police officers, Becker has stood by his decision, despite public controversy and criticism from his political opponents that he ousted the popular chief because of political pressure in an election year.
In reaction to Becker's statements, Burbank wondered why the mayor wouldn't let the issue go away.
"I'm done hearing about it. I'm done talking about it," the former chief said. "I've moved on, and I think it's time everyone move on."
Burbank said Becker's statements were "without question" a stunt to repair the damage the forced resignation has caused the mayor's political career, with two months until the general election.
Tim Chambless, a University of Utah political science professor affiliated with the Hinckley Institute of Politics, said the mayor is likely finding that Burbank's forced resignation is the No. 1 reason people are voting against him, and that's why he's trying to repair the damage.
"Saying nothing has not helped him," Chambless said. "Politics is timing, and I have to expect that the mayor has made this decision because he sees that ignoring the matter is not helping him, that he's not closing the gap."
But Becker said the results of the primary election — which showed challenger Jackie Biskupski leading him by more than 15 percent — had nothing to do with his decision to speak out Thursday.
Instead, the mayor said he decided to express his regrets about the situation after he had time to "reflect" on his actions and after talking with constituents who are upset about Burbank's departure.
Becker said he found many of the people who were upset with Burbank's forced resignation weren't fully aware of what happened, including that there were serious cases of sexual harassment involved.
"I just felt like it was time to try to clear the air," the mayor told the Deseret News. "Both for my own benefit because I've been having these interactions with the public, and I understand better how upsetting it is and why it's so upsetting for the public."
After learning of Becker's statements Thursday, Biskupski said his remarks do not adequately address his mistakes.
She said the public spectacle Becker made out of the forced resignation was unfair to Burbank. The mayor's actions also were unfair to city employees, Biskupski said, especially the three female officers who say they've endured years of anxiety from sexual harassment.
"Without a doubt, he did not handle this himself a year ago," she said. "I would have resolved it very quickly, not well over a year later, and there would have been no public display of a personnel matter. I'm not hearing him say those are the things he should have done differently."
Becker said he regrets that Burbank's forced resignation came as a "shock" to the public, and he wishes he would have communicated better that he and the police chief had been at odds for more than a year.
The mayor pointed to a five-page letter of reprimand from his chief of staff, David Everitt, sent to Burbank in 2014. In the letter, Everitt said Burbank's responses to Findlay's case bordered on "insubordination" by allowing Findlay to obtain retirement before he resigned instead of demoting Findlay.
Responding to criticisms that he didn't give Burbank a fair warning before forcing him to resign, Becker said the former chief should have been well aware that action would be taken.
"I don't understand how he could have been surprised," the mayor said. "He and I had had discussions about this and other personnel matters for a long time, and it had been reaching a point where I think he knew. … A week before (Burbank's resignation) we had a very intense, heated conversation that the way he was handling it was completely unacceptable to me."
But Burbank said Becker never discussed the matter with him before that conversation, which occurred over the phone while Burbank was on vacation the Tuesday before he was forced to resign.
"Never once has he had a conversation where he was even hinting that he was unhappy with what I was doing or how I was handling things," Burbank said.
However, Burbank said he "absolutely" did not do what Everitt told him to do because he thought demoting Findlay would be "vindictive" and only place Findlay back into the department, which would cause a disturbance among his employees.
"David Everitt, last time I checked, is not the mayor, and nor was he then," Burbank said. "I was a department head. I was equal with the chief of staff. Never once was I told that I was subordinate to David Everitt and had to follow his every direction."
Biskupski said the mayor should have had personal conversations with Burbank rather than dealing with the matter through Everitt.
"That never occurred," Biskupski said. "Everything was being done through staff."
Burbank said it's "ridiculous" to continue arguing about the situation.
"This comes down to I made a decision, and I did what I believed to be the right thing. The mayor disagreed with it, and now he has to live with it, however it impacts him politically," the former chief said.
When asked whom Burbank will be supporting for mayor, he said: "I'm not endorsing anybody, but I won't be voting for Ralph Becker."
Contributing: Doug Wright, Geoff Liesik