By Allen Edmonds
Former Belton Fire Chief Norman Larkey this week granted the North Cass Herald permission to publish the 10 allegations leveled against him by City Manager Alexa Barton on May 28. He received the allegations 19 days after his suspension, and 16 days after his alleged termination in closed session by the Belton City Council.
His decision to release the document came after Mayor Jeff Davis on Wednesday released the following statement on his own and multiple other community-focused Facebook pages, and also emailed it directly to all city staff, according to two sources on the city payroll.
“The City Council and I support the City Manager and Belton Fire Department. Norman Larkey resigned as Chief after learning the facts that came to light as a result of an independent third party investigation. City Administration initiated the third party investigation based on complaints made to City Administration by members of the Belton Fire Department. Also, the facts developed through the third party investigation were stated, confirmed, and corroborated by multiple members of the Belton Fire Department.
"We (the Council and I) believe and stand behind our City Staff, including the City Manager and members of the Fire Department. The City of Belton is blessed to have a committed, competent, and hardworking City Staff that carry out their duties and responsibilities with integrity.”
Larkey said the 10 allegations, a vaguely phrased and non-specific list of complaints that failed to include dates, times or references to specific witnesses, apparently is what Davis is calling the "independent third-party investigation." He said in a May 31 letter to Davis and Barton that he resigned because "trying to defend my self against the unfounded allegations and slander through the city's procedures would be fruitless given your actions to date."
Davis had also told a citizen, Rusty Sullivan, on Wednesday, June 12, at Starbucks in Belton that “when this comes out, Norm’s reputation will be ruined,” according to Sullivan. Davis did not deny making the statement (see more from that interview later this weekend on northcassherald.com).
Larkey was notified of his suspension on May 9, the night of the Belton High School graduation. As a school board member, Larkey was attending a pre-graduation dinner with other school board members when he was asked by Barton to come to her office.
He responded that he was at the dinner, and she asked him to leave the room and call her. When he did, he said she informed him that she had hired Michelle Stewart (an attorney who specializes in human resources issues) to do an investigation into allegation of mismanagement in the fire department, and effective immediately, both he and Fire Marshal Bobby Sperry were suspended pending the outcome.
Sperry has since resigned to accept the Fire Chief’s position at West Peculiar Fire Protection District.
Barton did not dispute Larkey’s version of events to that point.
Barton also asked Larkey to attend an 11 a.m. meeting with Stewart the following day, which he declined to do without his legal counsel. Barton contended that Larkey had no right to counsel at that stage in the process.
Just prior to Barton’s conversation with Larkey on May 9, she had posted an agenda for a Friday afternoon, May 10, executive session of the City Council to discuss personnel, as well as legal actions and contract negotiations. It was during this time frame that the decision to cancel the contract with Jim’s Disposal was being discussed, to it is logical to believe that could have been both the contract negotiation and legal topic.
On Sunday, May 12, Larkey said he received an email from the city manager that was dated for the following day, May 13. He said she stated in the email that the council had voted unanimously to terminate Larkey’s employment, and that his “employment with the City of Belton has ended; however, the council also voted unanimously to offer you a severance package and you could resign.”
The North Cass Herald has submitted a Sunshine Request for the minutes of that meeting. A response from the City is due Monday.
Larkey said that according to the email, he had 21 days to make his decision, with a deadline of June 2.
He said he did not receive a hard copy by mail of the notification until Tuesday, May 14 – just 19 days from the deadline.
Larkey cited City Code in claiming that he should have received the allegations against him as soon as he was suspended or terminated. According to Section 2-514, Paragraph 9, “Disciplinary action. When an action is taken or contemplated under the provisions of subsections (8) or (9) of this section, the employee shall be notified by the department director, either orally or in writing, of the proposed action, the reasons for the action and his or her right to answer the charges.”
By not receiving the allegations until May 28, 19 days after his suspension and 16 days after being officially notified of his termination, he said he was left with just five days to consider whether to resign or be terminated.
He said, according to the offer, if he resigned, did not speak publicly about the issue and did not sue, he would be paid through the end of September, 2019. At that point, he would have passed his fifth year anniversary as Belton fire chief, and would fully qualify for retirement benefits from that position.
He chose to resign from the position, but not to remain quiet or promise not to take legal action – thereby forfeiting the severance.
Barton refused to comment on any of Larkey’s description of events related to his termination, resignation or severance package, but she did not dispute his claims.
Larkey said he received the following allegations against him by email on May 28 from City Attorney Padraic Corcoran.
Allowed a non-qualified driver to operate an apparatus for the City for several hours rather than taking the apparatus out of service.
Response: Larkey said that while he was sitting at his desk on the day of the alleged infraction, one of his direct reports came into his office and said he was short a firefighter for a couple of hours and explained his solution, which involved assigning a Firefighter/EMT to the engine, that he would serve as captain on the engine for that time period, and that either Larkey or a different direct report would serve as shift commander.
Larkey said he asked the direct report if the Firefighter/EMT was eligible to drive, and he was told “yes,” so he agreed to the plan. Larkey said he later learned he was given the wrong information about the Firefighter/EMT’s eligibility to drive. He said he reprimanded the direct report for not giving him complete and accurate information, and that he believed the issue was resolved and that the direct report understood his concerns and his error.
When the issue of the non-qualified driver came up – he cursed out the (direct report) who suggested this plan – when the (direct report) had first sought (Larkey’s) approval. (The allegation uses Larkey’s first name, Norman).
Response: “I do not believe that I have ever cursed at (the direct report). He did not seek my counsel on this, rather he just told me that it is what his plan for coverage is and asked if I would approve it. I did approve it, given the information that (the direct report) provided me at the time. After the fact, when I found out (the Firefighter/EMT) was not eligible to drive, I questioned (the direct report) about the wrong information that he had given me to make a decision and advised him to never do it again.”
Repeatedly referred to the City Manager and Assistant City Manager/Finance Director as (expletive) in front of firefighters and personnel.
Response: “I have never referred to the City Manager and Assistant City Manager/Finance Director as (expletive).”
Attended fires and then gave adverse direction to the firefighters from that of the Battalion Chief controlling the fire, placing firefighters at risk of harm.
Response: “Yes, I attend every fire that that I can unless I am out of the city or if in a meeting that I cannot leave. I do not believe that I have ever given adverse direction to firefighters from that of the battalion chief. The only commands that I have given at a fire either were when I was in command of the fire, or after consulting with the battalion chief in charge of the fire, who would then give the commands himself. I believe that consulting and directing the battalion chief is part of my responsibility as the Fire Chief. I have managed fighting fires as an incident commander for 15 years of my 30-year career, and I have never put any firefighters in harm’s way with my decisions on the ground.
In a later interview, Larkey particularly bristled at the suggestion he would place any firefighter at risk of harm.
“Until you have held the hand of someone’s spouse who has been killed in the line of duty, you have no right to accuse any firefighter of such a charge.”
In his resignation letter, he asked that Barton and Davis “shop spreading any such allegations immediately.”
Attended fires in order to accumulate comp time.
Response: “I have never attended a fire to accumulate comp time.” Larkey goes on to describe an arrangement with former City Manager Ron Trivitt that he had never been told was no longer valid, and that he had done as he had been told in limiting his backlog of comp time.
However, he said, “I attend fires to put more personnel on the scene for several reasons. First, we are understaffed according to (industry) standards. My presence and that of other command staff officers at fires helps the situation. Second, the department receives a better ISO rating by having more firefighters on the scene of a structure fire; thus, having me and other command staff officers at fires helps with our ISO rating. Third, when I was new to the department, I attended as many fires as I could to evaluate the capabilities of the personnel, and due to the small number of fires that Belton fortunately has and the turnover of personnel, there is a constant need for me to evaluate performances. Fourth, this is my job; I am the Fire Chief and that is what I was hired to do.”
Larkey said that each time he went out after hours, he sent a group text to the Mayor, the Mayor Pro-Tem, the City Manager and the Assistant City Manager. He later said that he had not been questioned on his attendance at fires until receiving the allegation letter.
Instructed the Battalion Chiefs not to report overtime in direct violation of wage and hour laws, and City ordinances.
Response: “I have never instructed battalion chiefs, or anyone for that matter, to not report overtime. Last year, when there was a hiring freeze placed on the department by the City Manager, I did propose with the blessing of the City Manager to offer the three shift commanders the ability to either take comp time hours for the overtime hours that were worked, or be reimbursed by overtime pay in their paychecks, due to the fact that they were working a lot of overtime given that firefighters as members of Local 42 were not working overtime.
“We were forcing the battalion chiefs to work mandatory overtime, and I was offering them another means to be compensated. Taking comp time was strictly voluntary.”
Larkey named two battalion chiefs with additional roles that required meeting attendance and extra work. He said both would either take comp time or receive regular overtime pay, and “I advised them to keep track of the comp time on their time cards with their regular hours.”
Fostered a City Hall vs. Fire Department mentality by instructing his Battalion Chiefs not to go to City Hall and repeating to his staff/firefighters that City Hall is stealing from the fire department and out to get them.
Response: “As the department head for a disciplinary service, I did instruct the employees of the fire department not to go to City Hall unless I have them permission, and that they should follow the chain of command. This was indeed at the orders from City Hall (Larkey names the administrator whom he believed issued the order) as they did not want a bunch of employees coming to City Hall to ask about checks, payroll issues, insurance issues and the like. City Hall wanted them to take their issues to the department head first and then the department head would deal with City Hall. City Hall said it would be easier to work with a select few employees directly. The department also had several issues with employees going to City Hall and getting into trouble which resulted in disciplinary action.
“The comment about ‘City Hall is stealing from the fire department,’ I believe, is based on comments to the City Manager and Assistant City Manager on my dislike of results of the half-cent sales tax for Public Safety despite the commitment to voters that the tax would benefit the fire and police departments.
“After the tax was passed in November, the City Manager made the decision that the first $400,000 from each department would go back into the General Fund Reserve Fund. In reality, that means that each department only got 25 percent of the new tax and that the General Fund got 50 percent. This is why I was initially against the tax in the first place as I viewed it as a bait-and-switch operation, but I was assured by the City Manager and the Assistant City Manager that it would not happen.”
On the sales tax issue, Barton did respond. She said Larkey had not clearly understood the issue, and that due to the hiring freeze, funds had to be advanced to both departments from the reserve funds, and that this only assured those funds would be replaced. The money was still dedicated to the use it was intended for.
Because of outside activities, Mr. Larkey was sparsely present at the Fire Department to make decisions.
Response: “This is such an outrageous claim that I just do not know where to start, especially given the above claim that I work too many hours by going to fires. I can guarantee that no one works more hours in the department than me. I work a lot of long hours to get my work done.
“I am, however, out of the city from time to time. Some percentage is for attending necessary training, seminars and conventions for the fire department, some for attending the LAGERS convention and the MPR Fall Seminar for the city. Some percentage is for the State Emergency Management Conference as the Emergency Management Director.”
He said he has also traveled some for his Belton School Board service, but that it was always done using leave or vacation or comp time. He said he has also traveled on personal vacations, again using allocated leave.
“I can only guess who was getting all of the work done and making the decisions if I was sparsely there. When I am out of the city, I am in constant contact with the acting chief, either by email, phone or text. Each time I leave the city, I inform the Mayor, the Mayor Pro-Tem, the City Manager, Assistant City Manager, all department heads, water supervisor, sewer supervisor, head dispatcher, all the dispatchers, my command staff, (department secretary) Diana Conner and Chief Sperry.
“This was done by both an email when I was leaving and returning, why I was leaving, where I was going to be, what type of communication I would have, and who I left in charge and their contact info. I would also send the Mayor and City Manager a calendar invite, as soon as I knew, of my pending vacations so they would know when I was planning to be out of the city,” Larkey wrote.
Bragged to firefighters/staff that he would charge trips to his credit card in order to accumulate frequent flyer and hotel miles, using those to sit in first class while on City training trips.
Response: “I don’t understand why this is considered an allegation. I do openly discuss the merits of being a frequent flier and using other loyalty programs as I see benefit for everyone and for the City to encourage their use. However, using these while on city business is not prohibited by any policy. And, indeed, I have never charged the city with an undue expense.
“First, I use my airline credit card because I do not get charged any baggage fees when I fly, saving money for the city. I pay the annual fee for the card myself. Second, I am a loyal person, and if you fly on one airline all the time, they take care of you when something goes wrong. By being a member of several hotel loyalty programs, I can book hotel rooms cheaper than if I were not a loyalty member, which again saves the city money. I do earn frequent flier miles and hotel miles, but this again is not prohibited by city policy.
“I have never purchased first class tickets for city travel. I do get upgraded to first class tickets on city business flights due to my loyalty flying status with (the airline), not because of any added cost to the city. Actually, I have saved the city money by using my loyalty programs.”
He went on to say that he had received the city manager’s approval for each receipt claimed on each trip he had taken, and that he had always gotten three quotes for both airline and hotel reservations “to ensure I am not overspending.”
Refused to discipline firefighters for misconduct, including refusing to discipline a firefighter who, in the presence of various other member of the Fire Department and members of outside organizations insinuated that a female “deserved” to be sexually assaulted.
Due to the sensitivity of the issue, Larkey’s response to this charge will be summarized broadly. He said he believed that each instance of misconduct had resulted in discipline, but that he also knew that, at times, there had been some shift commanders that had not been happy with the outcomes of the discipline process.
He described two specific incidents – one in which he said the proper steps had not been followed by the shift commander in initiating the process as dictated by the Collective Bargaining Agreement the city has with Local 42 of the International Association of Fire Fighters. That miscue limited the disciplinary options available, Larkey said.
In another, he said, the battalion chief failed to recognize a material fact affecting the situation, and Larkey described the situation in detail in his response.
• • •
No Annual Performance Reviews given: Larkey said that each of the allegations could have been handled at the time of occurrences, but they were not. Further, he said, each should have been addressed in an annual performance review by the city manager – but that Barton had not conducted a review with him since she first accepted her appointment in June 2017.
That, he said, is a violation of city code in and of itself.
City Code Section 2-249, Paragraph (b) states: Other employee evaluation. Each department supervisor shall, on an annual basis or immediately prior to the employment anniversary of each of the employees under his or her supervision, evaluate each of said employees’ job performances for the past year. Each such job performance evaluation shall include, but not be limited to, industriousness, work attendance, and responsiveness to directives. The supervisor shall then meet privately with the individual employee and review the job performance evaluation with the employee.
For Barton, despite the existence of the word “shall” in the code, the APR can be handled in other ways.
“I know what code says. Code says they’ll get it annually,” she said.
“But I believe that employees should not be surprised on their performance evaluations. I do them about every other year, just to get something in writing. I meet with department heads every week. And in a performance eval, there should be no surprises. That’s not the time for a gotcha.”
However, Larkey said the 10 allegations he was emailed 19 days after he was suspended was exactly that, a “gotcha.” He said it was the first time that any of the 10 accusations had been presented to him, and that the last performance review he had received was from Trivitt on Aug. 12, 2016.
Barton said she would not address the specifics of any of the allegations, citing personnel privacy, but said that all were the result of the investigation conducted by Stewart, whom she called an independent third party.
“Because the City of Belton does not have a human resource director, her specialty is employment law. When we get a concern from an employee that there needs to be an investigation, the Hinkle Law Firm will come in and do an investigation. It’s an independent third party.”
The firm is hired by the city. A Sunshine Request has been filed requesting copies all invoices submitted by the firm since July 2018. A response to that request is expected by Monday.
Barton said some managers do the complete evaluations on an annual basis, because during the course of the year, “they want it all to be rosy. That’s not good for the employee. So I’ve had conversations with (each department head). When something occurs, I address it immediately.”
Barton said she was eager to get past discussion of the Larkey decision.
“There is so much going on in this city. We don’t have time to look at the past like this forever. We’ve got housing, we’ve got a rental inspection program, we’ve got another code enforcement officer coming on, we’ve got a new building official coming on, we’re looking at how we can help Main Street, we just got two bond issuances passed for stormwater and streets, infrastructure, not to mention the hotel/motel code that we passed last year, and law enforcement and public safety (sales tax), so we have all of that going on in this city.
“We’ve got to focus on what’s ahead of us and not spend a whole lot more time with this. I understand people want answers to questions, and they’re personnel matters and they’re just not going to know. I can’t share it and I won’t. I will respect the personnel side of the house. I also, through this investigation, respect and believe our firemen.”