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Fire Department is the hot topic at mayoral candidates forum

Residents in Pacific Palisades were deeply critical when cuts to the Los Angeles Fire Department were proposed nearly four years ago. At a forum for mayoral hopefuls there on Sunday, community members arrived with a question: What would the candidates do to beef up emergency operations and bring down response times?

Front-runners Wendy Greuel and Eric Garcetti each portrayed themselves as fighters for the beleaguered department, which has been under scrutiny since fire officials admitted they'd released misleading performance data for years.

Greuel, who conducted an audit of emergency response times as city controller, blamed the City Council and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa for slow responses since the budget reductions began.

She complained that the city hasn't hired a new firefighter in four years and said firefighters have told her: "I don't understand why the mayor and council cut us … and didn't expect it to be a problem."

Councilman Eric Garcetti tersely pointed out that Greuel played a role in the cuts while serving on the council before she was elected controller in 2009.

"We both voted for $56 million in cuts to the Fire Department along with cuts to all of our departments," Garcetti said.

Lawmakers had no choice, he said. When the economy bottomed out during the economic recession, Garcetti said, the cuts helped the city stay afloat. "I will never apologize for balancing the budget in those years."

"The question now," he said, "is what are we doing to restore?" He pointed out that he approved increases to the department's budget last year and has pushed Fire Chief Brian Cummings to draw up a plan mapping out where he would like to add back resources.

"You've seen me hold this chief's feet to the fire," Garcetti said.

Two years ago, the department closed units at more than one-fifth of the city's stations, including in Pacific Palisades, which lost an engine company. Residents feared the cuts would mean longer waits in the hard-to-reach hilly neighborhoods.

Last year, a Times analysis of Fire Department response times found that residents in many of the city's hillside communities wait twice as long as those who live in more dense areas in and around downtown.

Garcetti and Councilwoman Jan Perry said the department needs to focus on upgrading its technology. Plans to install GPS devices in city firetrucks have been in the works for years but slow to be implemented.

Candidate Emanuel Pleitez pledge to install "an in-house roving engineering team" that would look at data in the Fire Department and across the city.

The forum was sponsored by the Pacific Palisades Democratic Club. A fifth candidate, Kevin James, was excluded because he is a Republican.

After the forum, the club's board of directors held a vote to decide whom to endorse in the mayor's race. Garcetti was the winner, receiving at least 60%.

kate.linthicum@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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