Neb. fire chief resigns after firefighters present grievances to board
Bennet Fire and Rescue Fire Chief Tim Norris faced allegations of “leadership issues,” inappropriate behavior, and “unwillingness to change” in a six-page letter from members
By Andrew Wegley
Lincoln Journal Star
BENNETT, Neb. — The board overseeing Bennet’s volunteer fire department voted last month to accept the agency head’s resignation as chief before removing him from the department altogether after several first responders raised concerns over his leadership in a six-page grievance letter in early September.
Tim Norris had been the Bennet Fire and Rescue chief for five years, leading the force of volunteers who serve as the primary emergency responders for a vast rural fire district southeast of Lincoln that includes part of the Nebraska 2 South Beltway and extends into Otoe County.
Norris, who volunteered with the department since 2002, offered his resignation to the Bennet Rural Fire Protection District Board of Trustees in an email Sept. 21 — two weeks after concerns over his leadership emerged when “several members” of the department penned a letter to the board Sept. 7, taking issue with Norris’ leadership, according to documents obtained through a public records request.
The letter, signed only by “Your Bennet Fire & Rescue Team,” raised concerns over Norris’ perceived lack of communication and transparency, “leadership issues,” inappropriate behavior, an “unwillingness to change” and a lack of accountability for department funds, according to a redacted copy of the document obtained by the Journal Star.
In the letter, department members told the board that Norris, in one instance, had led a group of new recruits with minimal formal training into a burning barn and left them there without direction and without a radio.
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Members also said Norris had been a disorganized manager of the department’s finances, moving “funds around all the time between accounts” and offering no clear answers to other department leaders in response to calls for fiscal accountability, according to the letter, in which Norris’s name was largely redacted but at times left visible.
In one instance, the members said, Norris sat at a table by himself at the department’s annual cookout fundraiser and counted the cash donations in front of event guests before recounting the money alone in his office a day later.
He then is said to have deposited the money without the department’s treasurer or any other member counting the cash, the members said in the letter, which was first reported by The Voice News.
When it came time to spend the money raised at the barbecue, the members said Norris offered varying and inexact totals for how much the department brought in. A department committee questioned the figures that Norris ultimately did provide and “never got a solid answer as to why the numbers came out to what they were,” according to the grievance letter.
Members also indicated Norris has misused a tax-exempt barcode at a hardware store, according to the letter.
The department’s treasurer, meanwhile, told other responders that “he just does what (Norris) asks,” the members said.
“This has left members concerned about the use of department funds,” the members said in the letter.
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The Bennet Rural Fire Protection District Board of Trustees voted Sept. 27 to accept Norris’ resignation “with regrets” at a special meeting where seven department members spoke out in support of Norris, according to minutes from the meeting.
Moments later, Emily Bausch, a member of the board, moved to send the meeting into closed session “to discuss a personnel matter,” according to the minutes.
The board reopened its meeting 22 minutes later and voted unanimously to remove Norris from the department’s roster at large “based on a grievance filed concerning a significant traumatic event,” according to the minutes.
The minutes don’t specify which event laid out in the letter prompted Norris’ ouster, and several lines of text in the letter are completely redacted.
But the members who wrote the letter did describe the instance at the barn fire as the kind of decision-making that “could have gotten a group of our members killed that day if the structure had collapsed or they had been disoriented and separated by the smoky conditions inside.”
Reached by phone Wednesday, Norris declined to comment, indicating his ouster from the department hadn’t yet been resolved. Don Montgomery, the Board of Trustees president, declined to comment on what led up to Norris’ departure.
Though the grievance letter submitted to the board outlined detailed concerns over the former chief’s leadership, it’s unclear if the members who authored the letter hoped to see Norris replaced as chief or removed from the department altogether, instead seeking “assistance resolving these issues.”
“No one feels like (Norris) is a bad person or necessarily has any bad intentions,” the members said. “Everyone wants to help and be an equal part of this department to advise the department and better serve the community.”
Two weeks after the board received the letter, they removed Norris from the department, which hasn’t yet elected his replacement as fire chief.
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