As Medford City Council discussed a formal vote on Tuesday to demand that Mayor Breanna Lungo-Koehn fire the Director of Veterans Services after placing him on paid administrative leave pending a psychiatric evaluation, Councilor Michael Marks said the administration was on a “slippery slope,” taking action against a whistleblower employee.
“Here is an employee reporting fraud and wage theft to his superiors and the action taken against this employee is unacceptable,” Marks said in an impassioned speech in which he accused the mayor of taking revenge on Michael Durham. “It stinks of retaliation. He has been off work for two weeks. »
Marks asked the city to “get back to business as usual, run the city and investigate reports of wage theft and potential fraud.”
He noted that the federal government protects whistleblowers, but Medford kicks them out of the job.
“It feels like corrective action to me,” Marks said.
The council voted unanimously to ask the city to reinstate Durham. Councilor George Scarpelli was absent from the meeting.
Marks noted that the mayor’s actions send a message to city workers: ‘If you know of wrongdoing, don’t stand up, don’t be a whistleblower, don’t put your neck out like Michael Durham did. did. The city will go after you, go after your family, hurt you.
Advisers noted that Durham had been cleared by mental health professionals to return to work after voluntarily undergoing a psychiatric evaluation at Bedford Veteran’s Administration Memorial Hospital. They also noted that his personal file was “spotless” and there was no indication that he needed to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.
“It has been 12 days since Michael Durham was removed from City Hall, and according to the letter, this is not corrective action, and the city is not placing him on corrective action,” Marks noted. “If anyone felt the need for Michael Durham to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, it should have been scheduled immediately.”
The city has not yet scheduled an assessment.
In a hand-delivered letter to Durham on September 17, Lungo-Koehn informed Durham that he would be placed on paid leave citing his “behaviour in the mayor’s office on September 16”. The letter did not cite any details about the behavior in question. He demanded that he hand over all city equipment, his password information, and prohibited him from entering city buildings or interacting with city employees without his written approval.
The mayor’s action left the city’s Veterans Services office understaffed, and the council scheduled an emergency meeting Saturday to discuss office coverage with the administration. However, the council met alone.
“Obviously the administration is not taking this seriously,” Councilman John Falco said Saturday. He is running for mayor against Lungo-Koehn. “People’s lives are at stake.”
The mayor announced his intention to staff the office through Council Speaker Rick Caraviello via conversation Friday and with a message Tuesday, September 28 at 2:38 p.m. on the city’s official webpage. on Facebook.
The post reads in part: Wilmington City Veterans Officer will provide continued support to Medford veterans. All applications for veterans benefits will be forwarded through Medford to the Wilmington Veterans Affairs Officer, Mr. Louis Cimaglia, or Medford residents may contact Wilmington directly and request benefits and other assistance. In the meantime, we also worked directly with the Massachusetts Department of Veterans Services to ensure veterans benefit applications were processed quickly. Veterans will receive their checks as usual.
In the post, the administration promised that the mayor’s office will be directly involved in the day-to-day operations and support services of the office.
Councilor Adam Knight repeatedly asked how the replacement agent would be paid.
“It’s a waste of taxpayers’ money if we have someone hired in this position,” Knight said.
He and the rest of the board expressed disappointment that the administration did not send a representative to any of their meetings.
“The administration owes us the common courtesy of being here,” Falco said. “It’s just one HR issue after another, taxpayers deserve better.”
At the September 28 meeting, council also denounced the administration’s use of social media to relay information to councilors and to raise awareness of issues.
“The mayor has said she won’t discuss personnel issues, but it’s all happening on social media,” Marks said. “The document says Confidential at the top, but it goes to social media.”
Marks was referring to a report released by the city on September 23 and posted on its Facebook webpage in which an independent investigator exonerated Mayor and Human Resources Director Neil Osborne, both accused of harassment and creating a hostile workplace by Durham, of violating city policies on harassment and whistleblowing.
The complaints stem from a pay gap and other issues related to Durham’s function in the city.
“The investigator was chosen by the administration,” Marks said, adding that the council was denied funds in June to fund its own investigation and remove it from the mayor’s jurisdiction. “It gets him off his table.”
Knight said the mayor’s actions were a disservice to city veterans.
“They’re playing with a man’s life,” Knight said.
Resident Betsy Lister, who cares for her ex-husband, a fully disabled veteran, was among dozens of people at council meetings on September 21, 25 and 28 to advocate for Durham’s reinstatement. She said Durham: “has expertise, he knows who to call, knows what to do, how to react and how to calm a veteran down.”
What has happened so far
Durham, himself a disabled veteran, was hired by the city to serve as the city’s director of veteran services. In May 2020, he was asked to fill the position of City Hearing Officer, replacing Osborne, the City’s Director of Diversity and Inclusion who had been given a position as additional administrator in January 2020.
As City Hearing Officer, Durham had to adjudicate disputed parking tickets and subpoenas for violations of City ordinances. The backlog of hearing applications for parking tickets dated back to February 2020 and municipal hearings to November 2019. Restrictions on public gatherings imposed due to COVID-19 protocols hampered hearings and Durham eventually scheduled a meeting one day in September to start cleaning up the backlog.
When he filed for compensation in October 2020, he found the city had already paid much of Osborne’s two $5,000 stipends. Durham asked for compensation. Delays in rectifying the situation and paying for the work prompted Durham to claim wage theft and fraud and demand an investigation.
In July, Lungo-Koehn launched an investigation, selecting one of two investigators suggested by city attorney Kimberly Scanlon.
The report included, and made public for the first time, findings that Durham had been asked in October 2020 to oversee the city’s Office of Consumer Affairs, an independent entity overseen and funded by the Attorney General’s Office and Block Grants community. The report said the compensation due to Durham was for hearing parking appeals and supervising the consumer affairs office.
This aspect of Durham Town Hall’s duties had not been made public in his complaint, which related to his duties as a municipal hearing officer for parking violations and matters relating to municipal ordinances.
The document concludes that neither the mayor’s nor Osborne’s behavior violated the city’s anti-harassment or whistleblower policies.