The former Fire Chief believes his dream was taken away without reason. But City Manager Alexa Barton and Mayor Jeff Davis are standing firm that the Council’s vote to offer severance was justified. And Belton seems divided.
By Allen Edmonds
Former Belton Fire Chief Norman Larkey sat on the front porch of the three-story home he grew up in at the end of Main Street, ready to talk.
He walked away from a severance package that would have provided him a city salary and benefits through September, he said, if he would resign his dream job and leave quietly. He resigned, he said, because he knew he couldn’t win. But he wasn’t going quietly.
“I chose to just resign on my own to preserve the ability to speak with whom I wanted to speak with about this, to preserve the right to ever get rehired in the future, if the administration changes, and to preserve the right to seek legal action with a lawsuit if I should choose to. I have not decided to do that yet, but my options are open.”
Meanwhile, city leaders managed a legal tightrope walk this week in responding to his charges, responding only in general terms about the circumstances that led to his suspension and eventual resignation, but promising that specific evidence does exist should the case ever go to court.
Meanwhile, as in most personnel cases, citizens are being asked to trust that a hometown favorite from a large and well-known family was asked to leave his dream job for valid reasons. As expected, social media and diner talk isn’t overwhelmingly trusting of City Hall on the issue.
“This was my dream job,” Larkey said. “Who wouldn’t want to come back to their hometown like this and serve out their career as fire chief?”
That dream did come true after a career with the Kansas City Fire Department that saw him rise to deputy chief, a position that regularly placed him in command of an entire city. Four years and nine months ago, he said, “the mayor recruited me out of Kansas City to come here and be his fire chief.”
That mayor, Jeff Davis, also coached Larkey in high school football and wrestling, and has been a part of his life for 35 years, he said.
Last week, Larkey said he and Davis had not spoken since he was suspended on May 9. They spoke this week, Davis said, and it was a difficult conversation.
Larkey said he worked for now retired City Manager Ron Trivitt for the first two and a half years of his tenure at Belton. Alexa Barton took over the position in June 2017, and “I don’t know that she and I got off on the right foot,” he said.
“I questioned some things she did,” he said.
In the fall of 2017, at a Missouri Public Risk meeting in Branson, the first major sign of trouble in the relationship emerged, according to Larkey. Barton, interviewed separately, saw the exchange differently.
“I had a problem with the idea of donating fire hydrant and a water valve to the person or group that bought the trailer park south of Hillcrest School. I didn’t think that was a good way to spend taxpayers’ dollars, by giving it away to a for-profit corporation. I questioned her on that several times.”
He said that at the conference, a group from the city including he and Barton, were at lunch one day, and “we were arguing about it. I got up and left, because I didn’t want to say something I’d regret.
“She came and followed me, grabbed a chair and stood up on the chair so she could be at eye level with me. And she told me she needed me on her team, so forth and so on. I said I am on your team, but I’m not going to be just a yes vote. I will question everything that I think needs to be questioned, as far as government funds and public safety. So I think our relationship went downhill from there,” Larkey said.
Barton saw the exchange differently.
“First of all, people know I have a different approach to management. I want to be fun, and I want people to have fun in the workplace. And the specific situation you’re talking about, when I jumped up on the chair to look him in the eye, it was all in jest. It was like, ‘come on, Norman.’”
Barton said the fire hydrant was strongly encouraged by Larkey’s assistant chief and the battalion chiefs as a life safety issue, because the nearest hydrant was a good distance away from the Plaza Acres development, which was changing hands.
Larkey said he didn’t disagree with the need, but was concerned that if the city provided this equipment free of charge, it would be setting a precedent.
Barton defends the decision.
“Each situation is looked at based upon its need, what’s in the code, and what we’re trying to accomplish in the city. All we did was provided the equipment because we had it in stock. He had to pay for the labor,” which Barton said she believed was twice the value of the equipment.
From there, Larkey said, there were other points of tension, “but it all culminated this past winter.
Larkey is an elected representative on the county’s Emergency Services Board, which operates the upgraded radio systems used by first-responders throughout the county.
It came into existence in 2012 when county voters approved a sales tax measure to bring the systems up to the standards required by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
A major portion of that tax is due to sunset this year after the initial debt was paid off, but some have expressed concern that the board hasn’t lived up to its promise to voters to provide a “central” dispatch system.
Some view “central” as a physical, brick-and-mortar facility that would combine all emergency dispatching services into one Public Safety Anwering Point, or PSAP.
But the five existing PSAPs in the county, Belton Police, Raymore Police, Pleasant Hill Police, Harrisonville Police and the Cass County Sheriff’s Office vehemently opposed the suggestion, believing instead that voters were not actually promised a single physical facility, and that that idea would not be effective.
And in January 2018, the board voted to do a feasibility study into a proposal to merge the five PSAPs into one primary and one backup.
Larkey said he moved to do the study, and that his motion passed.
“The study came back in May and said either do a full physical consolidation or do a virtual consolidation because you’re on the same radio system,” he said.
“Nothing happened from May until November, so I made a motion in November’s ESB meeting to proceed with the feasibility study and do a full physical consolidation. I didn’t have a planned outline or details, I just wanted to move forward with the recommendation of the study.”
That did not set well in Belton’s City Hall, he said, and the action triggered a series of meetings and discussions with the city council – mostly behind closed doors in “executive session.”
“I walked into the Council meeting on Dec. 4, and the sheriff was setting in the audience. (Barton) invited the sheriff (Jeff Weber) and the police chief (Jim Person) into executive session after the meeting to give our five minutes on the ESB board and our plan. She wouldn’t let us ask questions of the council, and she wouldn’t let the council ask questions of us.”
Barton said this week she would not comment on the discussions in executive session.
“Then, at the Dec. 11 meeting, she said there was going to be an executive session, and she was going to talk about the ESB board some more. So I go in, everyone is in there, and the mayor goes, what’s up with this ESB situation? I said, Mayor, as far as I’m concerned, I’m moving forward with my motion in December’s meeting.
“Alexa got up and walked out,” Larkey said, “I assume to talk to Michelle Stewart (the city’s outside attorney that specializes in human resources issues).
“She came back in, and said, ‘I have a couple of questions for you.’ She said, ‘do you understand the City Council has voted to not support your plan on the ESB board?’”
No such vote is mentioned in the closed session minutes of either December meeting, and Barton would not respond to closed session questions.
“Then, she said, ‘do you also understand that if you vote for, or make a like motion to consolidate the five PSAPs into one, that you’ll be terminated from the position of Fire Chief for the City of Belton?’
“I said yes, and she said I was free to go. I believe she blackmailed me as a duly elected official of a governing body. But, I put that in the back of my head and moved on.”
Without Larkey’s vote, the ESB proposal failed in December, and Larkey said the majority of Barton’s communication with the fire department was done with Assistant Chief Bobby Sperry from that point forward.
But, he said, the two did meet once soon after the confrontation.
“We met in her office, and she said, ‘we need to get past this. We need to get along, and I need you to be a team player.’”
Barton confirmed the gist of the conversation.
Larkey said his response was, “I just don’t know, after what you did in closed session, I just don’t think I can be real supportive right now. After you threatened my job because of what I did as part of another elected body – I mean, what’s she going to do next? Tell me how to vote on the school board?”
Larkey is also a member of the Belton School Board.
Barton agreed that an employee with outside involvements can present challenges, though she did not remember ever having a situation like this – where an employee also served as an elected official.
“I didn’t say anything to him about running for the ESB, but I do remember when it came to the school board, I just said, ‘are you sure you’re going to have time?’
“The fire chief’s job is a big job, and there’s a lot going on. We needed him fully with us,” she said.
Larkey said he told Barton that he would work on it, “and we’ll see how things go.”
He said he believed things were getting better, “but obviously, she didn’t.”
Then came May 9, the day of the Belton High School graduation.
As a member of the school board, Larkey was obligated to attend graduation as well as a pre-ceremony dinner with the school board and administrators.
He said at approximately 4:48 p.m., during the dinner, “Alexa texted me and said she needed to see me in her office. responded, saying that I was headed to high school graduation, given my role as a school board member, and she replied, ‘Well, we need to talk, so call me.’
“I then told her, I was eating dinner with the school board before graduation, and I will call as soon as I can. She then texted me again, saying, ‘need to talk ASAP,’ and then ‘I need to talk with you immediately and do not want to convey the information in a text, please step away and call me. If I don’t hear from you in the next 5 minutes (by 5:35 p.m.) I guess I will have no choice but to convey this information by text.”
Larkey said he excused himself from the dinner and called her. She told him she had hired (Michelle Stewart) to do an investigation until allegations of mismanagement in the fire department, and that effective immediately, both he and Sperry were suspended pending the outcome of the investigation.
“You need to take your city vehicle back to the station as soon as you can, and your email and door card have been turned off. Please bring your radio, keys, credit card and other city property to me at City Hall at 8:30 in the morning.”
Larkey said he agreed to do so.
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