Rural sheriff’s race roils Butler County
State law change could help settle conflicts independently
Shown is the Butler County Sheriff’s Office in David City, Neb. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)
DAVID CITY, Nebraska — Butler County Sheriff Tom Dion knows what it’s like to run against a sheriff and win. In 2018, a year after leaving his job as a sergeant, Dion beat his old boss, Sheriff Marcus Siebken.
Four years later, Dion faces a challenge from within his own ranks. Deputy Marla Schnell is running against him, and most of Dion’s deputies and staff back Schnell, not the sheriff.
Malcontents or mismanagement
Dion defended his record last week, saying he’s proudest of reviving the anti-drug DARE program in Butler County schools and signing new contracts to enforce local ordinances in Surprise, Octavia and Brainard.
He said he is dealing with “a few employees making trouble.” But Dion’s critics and documents obtained by the Nebraska Examiner show more to his troubles than that.
Schnell said she is running because too many of the county’s experienced deputies have left. She and others in the office said the county risks more departures if Dion wins re-election.
Over the past year, Butler County has lost four of its nine deputies, the Examiner has learned. One was fired. Three left on their own. All were replaced by new hires.
People who have left and several who are considering leaving said Dion plays favorites with who gets paid how much, how cruisers get fixed and who gets assigned what shifts.
They said he rewards loyalty over performance, which Dion denies.
Interviews with 11 current and former employees paint a picture of an office with workers on edge, where the sheriff gives several employees “the silent treatment” and punishes people who raise concerns.
“People dread coming to work,” Schnell said. “There are people who ask for shifts Tom isn’t on to avoid having to deal with him. We know we can do better for Butler County.”
Deputy’s firing fractured office
Many current and former employees described the same breaking point with the sheriff: Dion’s treatment of a well-liked deputy with local ties who raised concerns about the safety of some deputies’ cruisers.
Former Deputy Devin Betzen was fired after filing a formal complaint with Butler County about a Dodge Charger, saying it had a bad rear suspension and a tire showing cords.
Betzen learned about cars from his dad, who raced in and around Butler County. Betzen worked for a local mechanic in high school.
Betzen and Dion got along well when he started in 2018. Betzen said things soured after he suggested deputies keep a log of maintenance issues regarding their cruisers.
Dion shot down several of his repair requests, pointing to the pending replacement of the Dodge cruisers with sport-utility vehicles. But Betzen argued that they needed to be safe until then.
“He always had issues with that, and with me wanting to get preventative maintenance done,” Betzen said.
Then Betzen, after complaining about the condition of his tires, got a flat. An employee of a garage that maintains sheriff’s vehicles told Betzen that Dion had told the garage to replace the flat with a used tire.
Betzen, who didn’t mind, said he noticed that the replacement tire was the same one removed from a sheriff’s vehicle earlier because it was showing cords, too.
The deputy filed a formal complaint. He said he was scared about engaging in pursuits with a tire showing cords, especially on gravel roads.
The sheriff sent a letter terminating Betzen. He said Betzen had gone above Dion’s head to complain and criticized Betzen for including inaccurate information in his complaint. One issue Dion raised was that Betzen changed his own tire but reported that the garage had changed it. Dion also alleged in the letter that Betzen had pushed cruisers too hard.
Betzen denied driving his cruisers too hard and said he forgot to mention that he had changed the tire himself while the mechanic was talking to him.
The sheriff declined to discuss the firing.
Dion reported the firing to the Nebraska Law Enforcement Training Center in Grand Island, which has the authority to revoke an officer’s law enforcement certificate. The report was reviewed and dismissed.
Betzen now works in landscaping and said he doesn’t know if he will ever go back into law enforcement.
“I was hurt,” Betzen said. “Here’s a guy I looked up to, did my first ride-along with, and then I just get … canned by him over a personal vendetta.”
Dion tried to fire Schnell in 2021 after she filed a complaint about him with the Nebraska Equal Opportunity Commission. Butler County officials made Dion rescind her firing the same day.
Union attempt fizzled
Dion described the office dynamic with a deputy running against him him as “very uncomfortable.” He said he probably needs to adjust his management style from “old-school” barking orders to talking things out.
“The problem is they don’t bring it to me,” Dion said. “The door is always open, but I can’t make somebody come in here and talk to me about an issue or a problem that they have.”
Current and former deputies said they have tried meeting with Dion but said he ended a key meeting in minutes, without addressing their issues.
The deputies also tried going to the county board, but board members declined to respond since the sheriff is an elected official.
Deputies tried to organize a union, but the effort fizzled after Dion secured raises for jail employees, leading them to back out of the bargaining unit.
Jim Maguire, president of the Nebraska Fraternal Order of Police, said smaller sheriff’s offices where deputies aren’t represented by unions have faced similar problems elsewhere.
He said being able to negotiate a contract with a county isn’t always about higher wages or benefits. Sometimes, he said, it’s about working conditions and making sure people can do the job safely.
Maguire, a longtime sheriff’s deputy in Douglas County, said law enforcement officers should not have to worry whether their vehicle is safe or whether their boss will talk to them.
Recruiting and retaining law enforcement officers matters more now because fewer people want the job, Maguire said. And training replacements costs taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars each time, he said.
State law could change
Union leaders said the Legislature could help smaller departments find a way to resolve disputes like these by revising state law.
Nebraska Revised Statutes 23-1722 and 23-1723 enable deputies in counties with a population of 25,000 to 400,000 to have their grievances heard by a local “merit commission.”
Those three- to five-member commissions include at least one elected official appointed by the county board, one deputy selected by the deputies and a community member.
That approach could be extended to smaller counties at little to no cost, Maguire said. It creates an independent, third-party commission so a sheriff is not the sole arbiter of serious disputes.
State Sen. Suzanne Geist of Lincoln, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said she thinks such a change could be a “good idea.” She said she would support legislation that does so.
“Things like this don’t happen all the time,” Geist said. “But it’s good for elected positions to have oversight.”
David City complaints
The problems in Butler County are seeping into the public eye, in part, because the sheriff’s office isn’t staffed during a handful of hours each day.
Response times are often slower then, because an employee on call must respond from home, which Dion acknowledged. One David City retail employee said the store once waited about 45 minutes after calling for a deputy during this off time.
David City leaders pushed in a recent meeting to renegotiate the city’s contract with the sheriff’s office for enforcing local ordinances. They said taxpayers weren’t getting what they paid for.
Dion said he has provided the services under the town’s contract. But City Council members told him at a recent meeting that his office had not enforced their ordinances consistently. City officials and Dion said they have been discussing the potential costs of adding more deputies.
Several Butler County board members have expressed frustrations with Dion during their public meetings.
One of Dion’s defenders on the county board, David Mach of Linwood, said he doesn’t believe the critics. He said Dion has done a good job. He said he’s seen more patrols in the rural areas near his home.
“Some of the people that left probably needed to go,” Mach said of sheriff’s office employees. “He didn’t really clean house. He kept the people who were there. That was probably a mistake.”
The county board took over management of the county’s 911 center this year, after dispatchers complained about working for Dion. Dispatchers told the Examiner that Dion didn’t always fill out reports after responding to calls, which complicated record-keeping.
Dion said he hadn’t heard such complaints.
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