In the midst of multiple city investigations, three more from the Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department's top ranks agreed to retire Tuesday, a day after Fire Chief Howard Willis did the same.
Tuesday saw the retirement, effective Nov. 1, of Willis' two chief deputies, Mike Rogers and Carl Scott, and the chief's brother, Battalion Chief Tommy Willis, according to City Administrator Fred Russell.
All four came under fire in recent weeks, with Tommy Willis’ involvement with a board-up company in apparent violation of city policy, prompting Rogers to place him on paid leave Thursday while he and Deputy City Administrator Bill Shanahan investigate the allegations.
Now that they have agreed to retire, Rogers and Scott will be eligible to receive their full city pensions because each has been with the department since the 1970s, Russell said.
Rogers had served as the acting chief since Sept. 14, when Howard Willis was hospitalized for heart problems. Russell said the department's chief training officer, Chris James, will be the acting fire chief. The city will undertake a nationwide search for a permanent chief, Russell said, but “it’s going to take me four months to bring in a candidate.”
City officials would not say directly that the four were pressured into retirement.
“They didn’t receive any pressure from me,” Commissioner Alvin Mason said of the decisions.
Mason has been one of Howard Willis’ biggest critics, however, grilling the chief during a meeting last month about his job qualifications and educational attainment. Mason said the four resignations were great news.
“I absolutely believe it’s positive,” he said. “It gives us the opportunity now to move forward, get the morale back up within the department.”
Commissioner Joe Jackson, the chairman of the Public Safety Committee, said he knew of no “smoking gun” that prompted the fire chiefs to step down, but that Shanahan's investigation of Tommy Willis' side business probably helped them make the decisions.
The Augusta Chronicle revealed that Tommy Willis has run – without department authorization – a company since 2007 that secures homes after they have been damaged by fire. On at least seven occasions, The Chronicle discovered, firefighters called 1-800-BoardUp to fire-damaged homes, a violation of city policy involving unfair competitive practices.
One of those cases involved John and Debra Lewis. An apartment at a complex they own caught fire last month. Fire department Investigator Neal Brown dispatched 1-800-BoardUp to the scene after telling the couple a group of firefighters had a business that could help secure their business.
The Lewises said they were told the company could secure the apartment as a public service at a “minimal” cost. They were taken aback when they received a $525 bill for securing four windows and one door.
John Lewis said he also was surprised to see that the bill came from Bowles Construction, which owns the Augusta BoardUp franchise.
“I thought it was a group of firefighters,” he said. “I’m not supposed to be tricked into doing business with Bowles.”
Mayor Pro Tem Joe Bowles, whose cousins own Bowles Construction, said it was time for the fire department to have new leadership.
“I think it’s time we make a clean slate in that department, and go outside and find somebody else to take over,” he said.
Morale has been one of main issues cited for the need for new leadership.
Charles Masters, the vice president of the Augusta Firefighters Association, drew a crowd of 87 firefighters to a recent commission meeting when he detailed a list of issues, including a January incident in which firefighter Steven Jenne was injured after being left by his crew inside a burning house.
Masters had been calling for the immediate termination of Rogers, Scott and Howard Willis, saying the department had been on “autopilot” under Willis.
Masters said Rogers and Scott’s retirements likely stemmed from Howard Willis’ decision on Monday.
“When (Willis) announced his retirement, the pressure on those two – they had no support from within the rank and file, none,” Masters said.
He said the moves made the “healing process” possible.
“There’s a lot of open wounds, a lot of hurt feelings” resulting from years of poor leadership, he said.