Just days after a reprimand against him was made public, St. Paul Fire Chief Tim Butler stepped down from his position Saturday.
The announcement by Mayor Chris Coleman came after a recent revelation that Butler had been reprimanded by the city in 2016 for retaliating against an employee. The case was one of five misconduct complaints made over the years against Butler, whose relationship with the Fire Department’s union had grown increasingly tense.
Butler, who has been the city’s fire chief for almost 10 years, could not be reached for comment Saturday.
IAFF Local 21, the St. Paul firefighter’s union, tweeted the contents of Butler’s letter informing Coleman of his decision.
“It has been a distinct honor to be the City’s Fire Chief for nearly 10 years,” the letter reads. “Thank you for the opportunity to be part of the Coleman administration and to serve the people of St. Paul.”
Butler asked Coleman to reassign him to his previous role as fire emergency management and communications chief Saturday, according to the letter. He will assume that role on Monday.
“Tim Butler has been an important part of maintaining the excellent quality of service that [the St. Paul Fire Department] delivers to our residents,” Coleman said in a written statement. “I thank him for his service in that role.”
Coleman, who is nearing the final months of his mayoral term and is not running for re-election, said he would appoint Matthew Simpson, the assistant chief of emergency medical services, as interim fire chief.
Union president Mike Smith said Saturday that he is excited to work with the “levelheaded” Simpson and that new leadership will allow the department to move forward for the good of the city.
“The time has come, and with the new mayor coming in, we feel a new fire chief would benefit this department,” he said.
A bond gone sour
As fire chief, Butler, 58, was responsible for 434 firefighters, one of the largest departments in the state. He earned a salary of almost $147,000.
He joined the city as a fire communications chief in 1990 and spent years in emergency operations before he was appointed chief. The Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association named him the “Fire Officer of the Year” in 2014.
Butler was sworn in as chief in November 2007 and was received with welcome arms by both the St. Paul administration and union leaders. “Great choice,” then-union President Pat Flanagan said at the time.
In those first years, he worked to mend issues with the union that emerged under the previous fire chief.
But the relationship turned sour following his reappointment six years later, Smith said.
“We just feel that ever since he was reappointed, the attitude in the way he treated our members changed dramatically,” he said.
Smith said Butler was involved in “personal attacks, harassment [and] retaliation” of leaders and members of the union, including him, calling his demeanor “very unprofessional.”
“Our members would voice their concerns and they would fall on deaf ears,” he said.
Butler was one of a handful of chiefs formally censured by the International Association of Fire Fighters during its annual conference in 2016.
Complaints about Butler culminated in December 2016, when city officials reprimanded him for retaliating against a subordinate who was part of a prior investigation. Deputy Mayor Kristin Beckmann, in the written response, said Butler’s actions had put that employee in an “extremely difficult” position.
Beckmann, writing about Butler’s behavior during investigations of prior complaints, told him that “you don’t understand how to conduct yourself in the aftermath of an investigation” and that he showed “incredibly poor judgment.”
Those findings were made public earlier this month after the city denied an appeal by Butler.
On Oct. 8, Smith filed a complaint against Butler after the chief sent an e-mail to a firefighter with the subject line “blue falcon,” a term often used in a derogatory manner.
Shift in spending
Under Butler’s leadership, the department added 18 firefighters, increased staffing for responding to calls and expanded some of its stations.
An independent report released in July found the department needed to come up with a plan to handle the city’s increasing number of medical service calls.
Coleman proposed in August to increase the fire department’s budget by $1.7 million in 2018. His plan also called for cutting spending on fire and rescue teams and spending more on medical response.
Smith said the new chief will have to improve that “without sacrificing” the department’s fire suppression efforts.
Miguel Otárola • 612-673-4753