By Allen Edmonds
Belton Mayor Jeff Davis claims former Fire Chief Norman Larkey isn’t the only one hurting over the events of the past month, and he wants everyone to know it.
Larkey resigned May 31 after being suspended May 9 by City Manager Alexa Barton over “allegations of mismanagement.” Barton said an “independent third-party investigation” had been conducted by attorney Michelle Stewart of The Hinkle Law Firm. She also said Stewart specializes in human resources matters and that has been contracted because the city does not have a full-time human resources director.
The day after the suspension, the Belton City Council voted unanimously in executive session to offer Larkey a severance package in exchange for his resignation, and gave him 21 days to respond. According to Larkey, Barton informed him by email on May 12 that the council had voted to “terminate” him, and also to offer him the severance.
One council member that was part of the meeting said there was only one vote, and that was to offer the severance. The North Cass Herald has filed a Sunshine Request for the minutes of that meeting. The city’s deadline to produce the document, according to state law, is Monday.
Davis said he knew “absolutely nothing” about the details of the Larkey situation until the executive session on May 10, “because it was an outside investigation.”
He said he heard from an individual that told him, “I think they’re after your chief. So then I go back to the city manager and she doesn’t know – at least she’s telling me that – because it’s an internal investigation. And they’re not going to release it until everybody gets in there, in executive session.”
Davis initially recruited Larkey to the Belton chief’s position in 2014, a year after he became mayor and former Chief Steve Holle retired. The longtime Kansas City Fire Department professional had risen through the ranks to the post of deputy chief by that point.
And, Davis said, “I love the guy. And I’m a little bit more than hurt, him lashing out at me when he doesn’t know what I’m saying in his behalf.”
However, he did not deny telling a Belton citizen, Rusty Sullivan, that what is alleged against Larkey could “ruin his reputation,” during a conversation at Starbucks on the morning of June 12.
“It’s a lot more than anybody knows,” Davis said. “I have to be delicate, because I’ve coached him. I’ve been with him.”
Indeed, Davis had taught Larkey at Belton High School, and had coached him in football and wrestling.
And as late as April, Larkey said, he and Davis had eaten lunch together at Buffalo Wild Wings in Belton, “and you told me that everything was good in Belton and that you had my back and that you thought it was almost time to get rid of both the city manager and the assistant city manager (Sheila Enrzen), but were concerned you could not be without both of them at the same time,” he wrote in a Facebook response to Davis’ two-paragraph post last week in support of the decision to force Larkey out.
Larkey confirmed that discussion this weekend, and confirmed that Davis had expressed a desire to fire both administrators.
Davis said that more “allegations” have come forth in recent days.
“Some of this stuff – what has happened is that more stuff has come forward. You know, it’s been weeks now, and it’s just been daily. More stuff. More after more after more,” Davis said.
Davis posted that two-paragraph statement on his Facebook page and emailed it to each city employee on Wednesday, where he said he and the City Council “support the City Manager and Belton Fire Department.” He said Larkey “resigned as Chief after learning the facts that came to light as a result of an independent third party investigation.”
He said, “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.”
It was after that statement was released that Larkey elected to respond directly to the mayor.
Davis said that he and Mayor Pro-Tem Lorrie Peek “had to throttle (Larkey) down lots of times, and I’m not going to get into the particulars. But he had delusions of what he wanted to see (with the fire department).”
Also, Davis said, “we told him time after time, you’ve got to stay in your lane. He hated Alexa and Sheila.”
He that when he and Larkey finally spoke, it was in Davis’ driveway.
Each gave vastly differing accounts of what that conversation entailed, but Davis said, “he believed I could sway the council to save his job. No matter what I said or did, it wasn't going to pull him out of that one. And you know, I can’t fire anybody,” Davis said. “I’m just one of nine votes, and it’s that way in any Charter government. We’ve probably had more leeway in Belton in the past, with the mayor’s power, but now, it’s not. It shouldn’t be that the mayor is the king of the city – it shouldn’t be that way.”
Davis even disagreed with the characterization of the 10 charges as "allegations" against Larkey that were provided in the letter to him nearly three weeks after his suspension and severance offer.
“This was a legal investigation, I don’t know how they’re ‘allegations.’ These are the facts that they came up with,” Davis said. When asked why the charges seemed vague and non-specific in the document provided to Larkey, he said, “we know what they are. If it goes to court . . . we’re trying to protect the city and ourselves, of course. It’s ugly."
There's a full report with all the interviews coming to the council and mayor soon, Davis said.
According to Larkey, Davis told him the city manager "still had more bullets in her gun," but if he (Larkey) had just sat down with the investigator, "and told her what I knew, that the city manager would have just slapped my hand and given me a reprimand."
Larkey said he chose not to, because his attorney was not allowed to be present for the meeting, and because he did not know the charges against him at that time.
Davis said of Larkey, “I think he’s a great guy, but I don’t know how he expected me to manhandle the council to get five votes. My goal is for him not to be ruined.”
He said he had had a close relationship with Larkey and his family over the years, and that he had even discussed in the past the possibly of accompanying them on one of their future trips to visit family in Ireland.
“I want to be able to go to Ireland with him, or New York. It’s going to be hard now,” Davis said.
Davis said during the May 10 executive session, “I saw a lot of emotion out of some councilpeople that were disappointed in an incredible way,” and that evidence beyond the allegations that were presented to Larkey does exist.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “And we’re being tender, because we do care. And our goal is not to ruin a person. I don’t even know why I’m in the middle of it anyway, because I’m just one vote.”
He said Larkey “probably said stuff around us that he shouldn’t have ever said in the first place, because he felt safe. But when it comes to cracking time, you gotta know . . . in my world, there are no sacred cows. I say it all the time, and I mean it. When my mom was alive, and used to say this, I’d fire her if she wasn’t doing what she was supposed to do,” Davis said.
Davis said this and other challenges are emblematic “of the change in the direction we’re going through in Belton right now. It’s painful. A lot of the old school people don’t like Sheila and Alexa, and it’s all painful. You see what good government looks like in Raymore. It’s not perfect over there, but they’re established now,” Davis said.
“What have they got, two people handling Facebook alone?”
However, others, such as Art Ruiz, have reported Davis saying things that indicated he believed he could, in fact, exercise influence over department heads’ employment.
Ruiz is a member of the Belton/Cass Regional Transportation District and former President of the Belton Council for Economic Development, a quasi-public organization that was eliminated when Davis first became mayor and sought to have the economic development function brought in-house.
“In my opinion, this was a situation where it was sensationalized behind the scenes by Davis. I say this because of a brief conversation I had with him months ago about (Police Chief) Jim Person and others he felt had to be terminated. He said he told Alexa Barton and (former City Attorney Megan McGuire) that if they would not get rid of certain people, he would find a way to terminate them. He seemed very proud of that,” Ruiz said.