Fire chief's long leave raising eyebrows

TORONTO - Where’s Fire Chief Jim Sales?


Anybody seen or talked with him lately?

I’ve been asking around without any answers. He’s still technically Toronto’s fire chief, but he hasn’t been seen or heard from publicly for months and months.

“We don’t know where he is or what happened to him,” one firefighter told me. “It really is a mystery to us.”

With other firefighters expressing concern, I decided to dig into this and attempt to track him down.

The chief was hired in July 2012 from Barrie, where he was a senior city manager. He’d previously been the fire chief in Markham.

“We are excited to have Jim join the city and we are excited to work with him,” then-mayor Rob Ford said.

“I know the City of Toronto will benefit greatly from the unique blend of senior municipal experience Jim brings to the position,” added John Livey, deputy city manager. “He has a proven track record regarding his ability to build relationships with staff and members of council.”

High praise and high expectations. So where is he?

I started my search with an email to the chief himself. It bounced back with a message to contact his assistant, Darlene. So I did.

An hour later, I received an email from city spokesman Jackie DeSouza.

“Darlene passed along your message to me,” she wrote. “There has been no change to the chief’s status — he is still on personal leave from the city and Matt Pegg is the interim fire chief.”

DeSouza said Sales has been on leave -- but still receiving his full pay -- since May 27.

Not trying to fan the flames, but is there something going on here?

Sources say they don’t know of any formal complaints being filed or internal probes. The city did not respond to questions about that when I asked.

What “personal leave” means, or what this is about, has also not been explained. But sources say it is not the same as medical leave. The whole thing is bizarre, since it seems like just yesterday that Sales signed on to the $222,493-a-year job to lead the 3,000-member service.

And he was thrilled to do so.

“I am proud and honoured to be selected by Toronto city council as the city’s new fire chief,” he said in 2012. “I look forward to supporting the city’s strategic vision and helping Toronto Fire Services continue its proud tradition and to actively contribute to improve the effectiveness to the services provided to the public.”

He has not done any of that for 15 weeks.

Councillor Jon Burnside said he too has been wondering about the status of the fire chief, and put out some feelers as well.

“My understanding is his personal leave expires Sept. 27, so I was just wondering what is happening and if he is planning to come back to his role as fire chief,” Burnside said.

It’s reasonable to wonder. So far Burnside hasn’t found any answers either.

At the fire hall level, there’s been lots of talk about the chief missing in action.

“It’s pretty hush hush,” said one firefighter. “There is lots of gossip but people really don’t know for sure what it’s about. And we don’t know what’s going to happen. But most of us don’t think he’s ever coming back.”

Some tell the Sun they believe Sales, who is close to retirement age, is running down the clock until he can formally retire at his next birthday.

Although this has not been confirmed, I heard one fire station recently took his picture off the wall — only to put it back up again.

Who knows? Maybe the chief will surprise everybody and come back before the end of the month to take back his command.

I called Sales’s home in Barrie and left a message, but have yet to hear back. The rank-and-file firefighters don’t seem to know if their chief is planning on returning.

It may come clearer later this month.

Burnside said he will gently and respectfully ask in the taxpayers’ interest, and to make sure everything is going smoothly at Toronto Fire Services.

“As far as I know, he still has a city car,” Burnside said. “But I don’t know his plans.”

Whatever they are, Sales must make them clear to city council by Sept. 27.

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