Embattled Augusta Fire Chief Howard Willis is stepping down, City Administrator Fred Russell said Monday.
“He’s expressed the desire to retire upon the resolution of his medical issues,” Russell confirmed after the Augusta Commission’s committee meetings.
Willis, who did not return a call requesting comment Monday, has been on medical leave since Sept. 14, when he was taken from work to the emergency room with an unspecified medical condition. He was later treated at University Hospital’s Heart and Vascular Institute but has been resting at home under a doctor’s care since Sept. 20.
The longtime chief and Emergency Management Agency director expressed a desire “to enjoy some time with his family,” Russell said.
Willis’ move has the full support of the commission, and he’s not set to receive anything besides his regular firefighter retirement and credit for any unpaid leave time, the administrator said.
The chief, a city firefighter since 1974, was earning $101,385 annually.
Willis, who was named permanent fire chief in 2005 after a brief interim stint, has come under fire recently as several issues have become public, the first being a department policy change that pulled an aerial truck off residential fire calls south of Tobacco Road. It later was rescinded.
It was under Willis’ watch that firefighter Steven Jenne says in January he was trapped in a burning house and left with post-traumatic stress disorder because fellow firefighters broke protocol.
The department and Willis have come under additional scrutiny after The Augusta Chronicle reported that his brother, Battalion Chief Tommy Willis, has run –- without department authorization –- a company since 2007 that secures homes after they’ve been damaged by fire. Tommy Willis was placed on paid administrative leave Thursday while the city investigates those allegations and whether he used city time and materials to steer business toward his company, 1-800-BoardUp.
Deputy City Administrator Bill Shanahan said Monday that the chief should have known about his brother’s side business, and that an investigation into Tommy Willis’ activities remains open.
“At the very least, the fire chief should know because he’s the one that gives out permission,” Shanahan said.
City policy requires all employees to get authorization from their department heads before taking on outside employment.
The chief’s most vocal critic has been Charles Masters, the vice president of the Augusta Professional Firefighters Association, who blasted the city for not investigating the incident involving Jenne.
During a commission meeting when Masters detailed the incident, 87 firefighters packed the commission chamber.
Masters said he remained concerned Monday that city officials would not address issues of “leadership” that extend beyond the chief, including Acting Fire Chief Mike Rogers.
Rogers added Monday that the chief never gave his brother permission to run 1-800-BoardUp.
“To this point still, I cannot answer why” it wasn’t done, Rogers said.
Russell said the city would likely soon begin a nationwide search for Howard Willis’ replacement, as well as “review who we’ve got appointed at the moment as acting.”
“Obviously we’d be looking at all interested candidates,” Russell said.
Commissioner Matt Aitken thanked Willis for his 40 years of service but declined to comment further.
Staff Writer Tracey McManus contributed to this report.