Diaspora

Repeated run-ins with mayor prompts Medford Veterans Services director to jump to VA – Wicked Local

Michael Durham, the Medford Veterans Services director, tendered his resignation. His last day was April 1.
In resigning his position as the Veteran’s Services director for Medford, Durham indicated he will miss helping the roughly 1,700 veterans who live in the city, men and women and the widows and orphans of those who made the supreme sacrifice. In his new position at the federal Veterans Affairs, he will not be handling cases one-on-one.
City Council President Nicole Morell said Durham “is leaving very big shoes to fill.
“I would hope that a resignation of such an important role would have been communicated to the council in an official way,” Morell said. “The incredible work Mr. Durham did for the veterans of this community is undeniable and we wish him only the best going forward.”
In a statement through her public information officer, Mayor Breanna Lungo-Koehn said the position of veterans services director has been posted and the city has already lined up support to provide assistance for veterans while they work to permanently fill the job.
“The mayor thanks Mike for his service to the city and wishes him well,” said Jackie Piques.
“I love what I do,” Durham said.
In addition to overseeing the city’s celebrations of veterans and armed forces holidays, Durham distributed emergency funds to veterans, their families, disabled children, and their survivors. While immediate emergency funds come from the city, Durham’s task was to find state and federal funds to offset Medford money and to continue to support those in need.
Once Durham secured permanent funds, either state or federal, Medford stopped the emergency aid. Finding a permanent solution, however, could take up to two years.
While Durham had a city budget of roughly $500,000 a year; he found $16.5 million in federal and state funds to distribute to the veteran community. The funds translate to about $1,000 a month in supplemental payments to the veteran community.
About 3,000 veterans call Medford home, but when adding in their families and surviving spouses and children, Durham’s work touched the lives of about 12,000 residents.
“Everybody in Medford knows someone who served or the family of someone who served,” Durham said. He noted veterans enjoy a protected status for a reason. “They sacrificed portions of their bodies, their minds and their souls to serve this country.”
Durham, a disabled combat veteran, worked for Medford for three years. His tenure was not without controversy.
While his primary focus has been on helping the city’s former service members and their families, Durham had also accepted tasks from the administration. In 2020, during the COVID-19 lockdown he was asked to take over the duties of the hearing officer, where he was to adjudicate appeals from summonses issued for city ordinance violations and parking.
More:Medford requests bypass to civil service hiring protocols, but says will hire veterans first
Durham worked through a back-log of appeals between May 2020, when he was offered the post, and a September Saturday, when he held a day-long meeting to hear the appeals. In seeking compensation, Durham found the stipend accounts, two with $5,000 each, were bare, save for about $500. He used those funds to pay the clerk who supported him, cleaning the office between clients and facilitating the paperwork during the day-long hearing.
The stipends, Durham said, had already been paid to the former hearing officer, the employee who had performed those duties in the past.  Durham claims he has yet to be paid for the work he performed.
In 2021, Durham was alarmed by the city’s attempt to by-pass the standard civil service hiring lists for police and fire, lists which are traditionally topped by veterans.
“Those jobs save lives,” Durham said, explaining many combat veterans face challenges transitioning back to civilian society and finding fulfilling work. Jobs with the police department or fire service are excellent avenues to return to a civilian workforce.
In 2021 the mayor requested the state prepare a list that focused on applicants’ language skills, she said she was seeking candidates who spoke Spanish, Portuguese and Haitian Creole, for the Police Department.
More:Medford mayor places city’s veteran’s services director on leave pending a psych eval
While the state demurred, requesting documentation to support the city’s request for the specialized list, Durham claime the director of human resources made it clear to him that veterans were not the type of diverse employees needed in the city.
Durham also listed instances when the mayor ignored veteran-related celebrations in the city or, in his opinion, disrespected veterans.
More:Medford vets director undergoes independent psych eval, attorney demands he be reinstated
More:Medford City Council demands Veteran’s Services director return to work
More:Medford’s veterans services director returns after being declared fit for duty
The departmental director has been very vocal in his criticism of the mayor, In September, Durham was removed from his office, escorted from City Hall by police and instructed to undergo a psychiatric evaluation to determine his fitness for work. Durham commissioned his own evaluation, conducted by the VA and was also scrutinized by a mental health specialist chosen by the city.
Durham passed both evaluations and was reinstated in October, about a month after he was placed on leave.
Durham was not alone in being asked to undergo a psychiatric evaluation by the city administration. In January, an employee in the city’s collections department was placed on leave and ordered to undergo an evaluation to determine their fitness for work. The employee has since returned to work.
More:Lowering of POW/MIA flag at Medford City Hall upsetting to veterans, director of services
Durham takes the mayor to task for what he called her disregard and disrespect of the city’s veteran population. He cited the temporary removal of the POW/MIA flag from the monument honoring those Medford residents who were killed in the line of duty in front of City Hall last June and replacing it with different banners, “refusing” to post pictures of celebrations pertaining to veterans: Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day and Four Chaplain’s Day, among others.
Even as he prepared to take on a challenging job with the VA, Durham made sure several projects he was working on will continue in his absence.
The city will now have a third flagpole in front of the municipal building to ensure the POW/MIA flag is not replaced with other banners when Medford celebrates Pride Month, or Juneteenth, or other noteworthy events.
Medford High School students in the club: Center for Citizenship and Social Responsibility (CCSR) will continue to research the lives of the soldiers, men and women, whose names grace city streets and square, monuments and markers. The city will take the students write-ups of the biographies, imprint them in metal plaques and hang them with the names.
More:Lowering of POW/MIA flag at Medford City Hall upsetting to veterans, director of services
The World War I Memorial at Oak Grove Cemetery, a space that reflects the work of local sculptor Emilius R. Ciampa, will be cleaned, repaired and restored after Durham, working with local historian and Cemetery Board of Trustees liaison Dee Morris, secured $400,000 to see the work accomplished.
The memorial, with its white marble headstones, a quiet meditative space featuring a paved area, a balustrade, and a statue of a Doughboy, welcoming fallen comrades with arms outstretched, will be restored to its original glory.
The city has also received 10,000 flags to mark the graves of Medford veterans buried in local cemeteries for Memorial Day.
More:First nod to refurbish WWI memorial in Medford’s Oak Grove Cemetery, City Council to act
“I would have happily worked my whole career in this role as I derive the utmost personal joy from serving my community,” Durham said. He added the “toxic hostile environment Breanna Lungo-Koehn created has left me at risk of personal and professional ruin if I stay.”

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