LOCAL

Two L.A. fire commanders reassigned

PoliticsFitnessMitchell EnglanderLos Angeles Fire DepartmentNury MartinezPaul Koretz

Two top commanders who oversaw hiring and training at the Los Angeles Fire Department have been reassigned after officials learned their sons advanced during a recruitment process that has come under scrutiny at City Hall.

Interim Fire Chief James G. Featherstone learned about the situation after being appointed last November and concluded that it posed a potential conflict of interest, his spokesman said Friday.

"He immediately recognized this was not appropriate," spokesman Peter Sanders said.

Sanders said there is no indication that the commanders sought to influence the process on behalf of the relatives.

Last year, thousands of people applied for 70 coveted LAFD firefighting jobs, which pay an average of $143,000 a year in salary and overtime. The Times reported Thursday that more than 20% of the recruits in the new training class are sons or nephews of current members of the force.

One reassigned commander, a battalion chief who was an acting assistant bureau commander in the LAFD training division while applicants were being screened last year, has a son in the recruit class now underway. Another battalion chief who headed recruiting has a son who passed an interview and could be hired in a future class. Both were moved out of those roles and now work in other sections of the department.

A third commander, Asst. Chief Patrick Butler, recently named to oversee the LAFD training division, also is expected to be transferred because he has a brother-in-law in the new class, Sanders said. The agency became of aware of Butler's family connection Friday after an inquiry from The Times, Sanders said. When contacted Friday, Butler reserved comment, saying he had not been officially told that he would be transferred.

News of the reassignments came as some City Hall lawmakers called for immediate reforms of the LAFD hiring process, in part citing the proportion of new hires with connections to the Fire Department. The department said Friday that another relative of a current firefighter was identified in the training class, bringing the total to 17, or 24%.

"I'm shocked, quite frankly," said Councilwoman Nury Martinez, the only female elected official in city government. "I believe there's an unfair advantage to folks who are related to current firefighters. They obviously know the process a lot better than your average person who's just applying."

Mayor Eric Garcetti and other officials also have criticized the selection process for the class, which is 60% white and includes only one woman, for failing to increase the diversity of a department that has struggled to overcome a legacy of costly discrimination lawsuits. The mayor has said he wants to make greater progress toward a decades-long goal of having the LAFD be more representative of the city, which is 29% white.

A spokesman said Garcetti will ask the Fire Department's new internal watchdog, attorney Sue Stengel, to investigate the department's hiring practices.

The Times has reported that thousands of firefighter candidates were disqualified last April from consideration for the new class, the first in five years because of recession-driven budget reductions, because they failed to submit a key piece of paperwork in a 60-second period.

Applicants who passed a written exam were told that they could submit certificates showing they completed a physical fitness test starting at 8 a.m. April 22. After thousands of certificates flooded in, Personnel Department managers said they decided to limit their review of potential recruits to 965 applicants whose forms were deemed to have arrived in the first minute.

City officials and candidates who were passed over said the winnowing process was arbitrary and unfair, and resulted in excluding qualified people, some with paramedic and firefighter experience.

Personnel managers maintained that the one-minute cutoff ensured an impartial selection and was in line with past hiring practices. But on Friday, an agency spokesman said personnel officials will investigate how so many LAFD relatives ended up in the class.

Personnel officials have been unable to answer key questions from The Times about the process, including how many physical fitness certificates were deemed to have been received within one minute last April by email, fax, or in person from people who lined up outside the agency's downtown office.

The mayor's office said Friday that it had ordered personnel officials to produce information showing the manner in which the forms were filed, starting with the relatives of LAFD firefighters who were ultimately hired.

The two battalion chiefs who were reassigned were identified by the department as Corey Rose and Steve Hissong. Both were given different jobs of equal responsibility in areas not involved with training or recruitment, Sanders said. Rose could not be reached Friday for comment, and Hissong said through a department spokesman that he had recused himself from matters involving the new class.

Councilman Paul Koretz called the 60-second cutoff in considering applicants "bizarre," but said he wasn't troubled by the ratio of LAFD firefighters' relatives in the recruit class.

"I don't find it any more shocking than the fact that there are often professional Major League Baseball players that wind up being sons and grandsons" of other players, he said.

Councilman Mitchell Englander, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, endorsed the mayor's call for an investigation of the hiring process, including how so many members ended up being related to current firefighters.

"The numbers are so high," he said. "It's my suspicion that where there's smoke, there's fire."

robert.lopez@latimes.com

david.zahniser@latimes.com

ben.welsh@latimes.com

Times staff writer Emily Alpert Reyes contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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PoliticsFitnessMitchell EnglanderLos Angeles Fire DepartmentNury MartinezPaul Koretz
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