Fairfield’s acting city manager sees new role as ‘a period of rejuvenation’ in long career

Fairfield Fire Chief Don Bennett is also serving as acting city manager since the resignation of the previous city manager. NICK GRAHAM /STAFF
Fairfield Fire Chief Don Bennett is also serving as acting city manager since the resignation of the previous city manager. NICK GRAHAM /STAFF

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

Fairfield Fire Chief Don Bennett did something in December he thought wasn’t possible after nearly 37 years with the city: learned a new profession.

In December, Bennett took over as acting city manager following the abrupt resignation of Mark Wendling while continuing to run the fire department. The infrastructure in place will help him perform both jobs at a high level, he said.

“It’s sort of a period of rejuvenation,” said the 69-year-old. “I’m taking on new responsibilities. I enjoy the learning portion of it. The internal workings of various departments.”

City officials asked the chief to take on the acting role just two days prior to Wendling’s resignation on Dec. 11. A separation agreement and release was a “resolution of disputed claims and is not an admission of liability,” according to the document. Any alleged disputed claims are not included in Wendling’s personnel file, and neither side is permitted to talk about the issue, per the agreement.

Bennett said when he was approached, he had several questions, including expectations of managing the city on an interim basis, not unlike the questions he had of city leaders in 1984 when he took on the fire chief’s job.

“One of the reasons I decided to accept the additional responsibilities was the fact that I realized there was a very strong support mechanism from the elected officials down through the department heads,” Bennett said. “That gave me some reassurance.”

At the time of his appointment, city officials said they looked to Bennett for his leadership and knowledge of the city.

Bennett starts his workday at 8 a.m. at the fire headquarters on Nilles Road, meeting with his two deputy chiefs and the department’s code enforcement officer. Over coffee, they exchange their thoughts over the last 24 hours and talk about what’s to come for the day, which he says is “a good way to start the day and interact with the administrative staff and get a feel of what’s going on.”

“I jokingly, when I walk out, tell everybody I’m going to my other job,” he said. It’s the same thing Bennett tells the administration and front-office staff at the municipal building when he heads to the fire department.

“To say it is beyond busy will be an understatement, but it is a very welcome kind of busy,” said Bennett.

“I still try to maintain all the responsibilities with the fire chief’s position, not to overload the deputies because I’ve chosen to take on this acting role, but it’s been very educational for me.”

Bennett’s management style is hands-off, allowing those he leads to do their jobs.

“They are professional people, they know what they’re doing, and I’m here if they need help,” he said. “I made it perfectly clear from the onset and what makes this a tenable situation is the fact they are doing very good work and they have been very supportive.”

Bennett has been a steadfast figure in the city, serving six city managers, and soon a seventh. That hiring process could take be a six to eight-month. And that longevity has made him beloved by many in the city ― residents, staff and elected officials alike.

Fairfield resident Sherry Flaker honored Bennett during a recent City Council meeting.

“I want to honor you because you are just so much more than a man in this city,” said Flaker, addressing the council for several minutes. “You are a hero. My kids have someone they can look up to, my grandchildren have someone they can look up to. You just don’t speak your words, you live them. And this city owes you a great deal of gratitude.”

After her time, Vice Mayor Leslie Besl told Flaker, “We all agree with you. He is an amazing human being and we have been so blessed to have him with us for so many years.”

DON BENNETT

Age: 69

Feb. 20, 1970: Don Bennett begins his career in the fire service Dunlap Fire Department in Hamilton County

April 2, 1984: Fairfield hires Don Bennett to be the city’s first full-time fire chief

1994: Bennett received the Ohio Service Valor Award

2005: Fairfield Community Foundation’s Firefighter of the Year

Dec. 11, 2020: Fairfield Fire Chief Don Bennett named acting city manager while still serving as fire chief

Currently: Bennett is the President and Director of the Greater Cincinnati Hazardous Materials Unit

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