The director of veterans' services for the City of Medford, Michael Durham, was escorted from City Hall by Medford police officers on Friday, Sept. 17 after being placed on paid administrative leave by Mayor Breanna Lungo-Koehn. At the time, Durham was given a notice from the mayor’s office explaining the action and demanding that Durham undergo psychological evaluation.
According to Durham's attorney Mark Rumley, Durham's removal from City Hall and placement on leave was provoked by an interaction between Durham and Mayor Lungo-Koehn in the mayor’s office at City Hall the previous day. On Thursday, Sept. 16, Durham came to the office to ask Mayor Lungo-Koehn about the content of remarks that acting Director of Human Resources Neil Osborne would be making the following Saturday concerning veterans.Mayor Lungo-Koehn refused to speak with Durham on the matter, citing that Durham was represented by counsel for an unrelated wage dispute, Rumley said.
Michael Marks, a member of the Medford City Council, told the Daily that this wage dispute stemmed from Durham's performing the role of hearing officer for a backlog of parking and municipal fines hearings. The hearings had originally been assigned to another hearing officer, and because the stipend allotted to that hearing officer had already been paid out, Durham did not receive pay for his work.
According to Rumley, Durham met with City Solicitor Kimberly Scanlon immediately following the conversation with Mayor Lungo-Koehn on Sept. 16. Scanlon refuted the mayor's claim that Durham’s representation by counsel prevented the mayor from speaking with him about Osborne's remarks. Scanlon also suggested that Durham write a statement to her office about the incident, which he did the same day. The next day, Durham was called into Chief of Staff Nina Nazarian’s office, where he was given the notice of his leave and removed from City Hall.
Mayor Lungo-Koehn’s Director of Communication Jackie Piques has refused requests to comment on Durham’s administrative leave, citing that the issue is an active personnel matter.
Rumley maintains that there was no wrongdoing on Durham’s part, and that the mayor’s decision to place Durham on administrative leave constitutes retaliation for Durham’s comments on veterans in local government and his accusations of wage theft by the city.
“Michael Durham did absolutely nothing to warrant this action. It is ... retribution for the positions that he has taken to protect veterans, and also for calling out the city on wage violations pertaining to him being a hearing officer,” Rumley said. “This is retribution for a fine man doing his job and speaking his mind, nothing less.”
Marks explained that the mayor's office has not been forthcoming about the details of the wage dispute.
“Over several months, as a council, we've all asked — and I've asked personally — you know: ‘When did this happen?’ ‘Who got paid?’ ‘For what time period?’ ‘What backlog?’ You know, just trying to get some basic answers," Marks said. "I gotta be honest, the administration has not been forthcoming with that information.”
Marks also explained that Durham visited Mayor Lungo-Koehn's office on Sept. 16 to learn more about Osborne's upcoming remarks about veterans' benefits and civil service hiring. Durham is a vocal advocate for granting preference to veterans who apply to civil service positions over equally qualified, non-veteran applicants — a policy that is codified in Massachusetts state law.
On Sept. 28, the Medford City Council voted unanimously to reinstate Durham. The vote was called after Durham brought the issue to the City Council himself. The unanimous decision was symbolic — it is up to the mayor whether or not to reinstate personnel, but the council nonetheless wanted to send a message.
“After hearing Mike Durham speak, after hearing the administration come before us and speak … many of us came to the conclusion that … this gentleman should be reinstated,” Marks said. “We wanted to send a formal message that we're not happy with this … We may not have a say in it, but we, as seven members of an elected body in this community all at large, we want you to rectify the situation"
Since being placed on administrative leave, Durham has voluntarily undergone an independent psychiatric evaluation by a board-certified psychiatrist at the VA hospital in Bedford, Mass., who determined Durham to be fit for duty. More recently, Durham has also undergone psychological evaluation by Joseph Begany, a psychologist selected by the mayor, who verbally informed him that no problems were found.
“I have talked to Michael and every indication is that ... he did extremely well on the visit with their psychologist, and that [Begany] found zero prohibition on Michael returning to work,” Rumley said.
Moving forward, John Martin of KJC Law Firm will act as Durham’s primary attorney, with Rumley continuing to represent Durham on the wage theft matter.
Currently, Durham’s responsibilities as director of veterans’ services are being performed by Louis Cimaglia, who is the director of veterans' services for the Town of Wilmington, Mass. Piques commented on the decision to hire Cimaglia.
“Wilmington was able to most quickly provide support for Medford. Mr. Cimaglia’s office has provided temporary support services for other communities in the past, and Mr. Cimaglia himself has an outstanding reputation in the industry,” Piques wrote in an email to the Daily.
Despite Cimaglia’s good reputation, Marks expressed doubt that Cimaglia is performing Durham's role to the full extent that Durham did prior to his administrative leave.
“We've asked … ‘Are we [the City of Medford] paying him?’ first of all; ‘how many hours?’ ‘what are the hours?’ and ... we got a communication back more or less saying that the mayor is handling this," Marks said. "So personally I don't think the office is being manned, like [when] we had Mike. Mike was there eight hours a day, five days a week, and then his assistant, so I don't think that's happening.”