Mass. Chief on Sick Leave Interviews for Ala. Position

SOUTH YARMOUTH — Fire Chief Michael Walker, who has been on paid medical leave since June, was in Alabama a week ago interviewing before the Decatur City Council as one of three finalists for the job of fire chief.

When contacted Wednesday, the 54-year-old Walker explained he is simply checking out his options and has applied for the chief's job in a few fire departments.

"I was just testing the waters. It's as simple as that," Walker said. "I'm still Yarmouth's fire chief, and I'd be perfectly happy to stay here."

Walker apparently did not get the job in Decatur, which is about 100 miles south of Nashville, Tennessee. The Decatur Daily reported Wednesday on its website that the city council would offer the job to the assistant fire chief from Knoxville, Tennessee.

Walker went out on an extended medical leave from the Yarmouth department on June 29 and it is ongoing. Selectmen appointed Deputy Chief Philip Simonian acting fire chief on Aug. 19. Simonian did not return a call for comment Wednesday.

Walker confirmed he has been paid throughout his leave. His current annual salary is $127,000. Assistant Town Administrator Peter Johnson-Staub said in an email to the Times that the chief went on leave June 29. His pay per week is $2,440.60, which totals about $107,386.40 earned during his leave.

Decatur, which has a population of 55,000, had set the range for a new chief as $85,000 to $106,000.

Walker said he's now ready to return to work, and plans to meet with Yarmouth officials next week.

"I've got a doctor's letter that says I'm fit for duty," Walker said. "I took it upon myself to go out and do research and get myself fixed. I prefer not to give details on my health. I'm fit now. I worked pretty hard for it."

Decatur officials were aware of his medical leave, as well as his clearance by a physician to return to work, he said.

"I have nothing to hide," he said. "I've talked to them personally about it."

Asked whether the City Council had been told of the leave prior to his recent interview, Walker said he wasn't sure.

Kenneth Smith, personnel director for Decatur, said he had been in touch with Walker.

"I spoke with Mike yesterday, and he was very open with me about his personal health," Smith said Wednesday. "He told me it's not a job-related injury."

Kevin Huck, union president for Yarmouth firefighters, said there has been no flow of information down to the staff regarding their chief.

"He's been on extended leave, and I really don't know much more about it," Huck said.

Erik Tolley, chairman of the Yarmouth Board of Selectmen, did not return a call seeking comment. Vice Chairman Tracy Post refrained from comment but referred the Times to Johnson-Staub.

Dennis Fire Chief Mark Dellner said members of the Barnstable County Fire Chiefs Association have been aware of Walker's medical leave, because he hasn't attended their monthly meetings, but they weren't aware of the specifics nor of his plans to look into a job elsewhere.

"Does it surprise me? No," Dellner said. "I know police chiefs, fire chiefs and town administrators sometimes aren't a good mix, and it's better to move on. There didn't seem to be a good mix over there. That doesn't make him a bad person. I wish him well."

When asked about his relationship with firefighters and local officials Wednesday, however, Walker said there were no problems. "I have a great relationship with the firefighters union, and the selectmen have always been ladies and gentlemen to me," Walker said.

Before Yarmouth, Walker was fire chief in Pelham, New Hampshire, for two years. When asked Wednesday, he declined to give a reason for leaving.


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