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Eric Garcetti appointees select new L.A. Fire Department watchdog

The Los Angeles city Fire Commission on Tuesday named a lawyer from the office of Mayor Eric Garcetti as the Fire Department's new internal watchdog.

The independent assessor position was created by voters in 2009 to audit the handling of misconduct complaints against LAFD employees. It was prompted by a wave of discrimination and harassment allegations that cost taxpayers nearly $20 million in legal payouts over several years.

In a unanimous vote after emerging from a closed-door session, the commission appointed Sue Stengel. Stengel has worked as a public defender and a City Council aide, in addition to serving in oversight roles at the LAPD and state prison system. She is serving in Garcetti's administration as a policy director in the homeland security department.

"My priorities in overhauling the Los Angeles Fire Department are to reduce response times and change its culture," Garcetti said in a written statement.  "Sue Stengel brings a wealth of experience to the position and will play a crucial role in reforming the department."

Attorney Stephen E. Miller, the first person to hold the post, claimed city attorneys prevented him from doing his job by blocking access to firefighter personnel files. That sparked a lengthy, ongoing legal dispute between Miller and city lawyers marked by charges and countercharges of misconduct.

Last October, Miller was fired without explanation by Garcetti's newly appointed Fire Commission. Since then the position, which could pay as much as $165,000, has been vacant.

Commissioners said Tuesday that legal issues involving the independent assessor's access to personnel records need to be resolved.

In a series of reports, Miller, who held the job for nearly four years, cited improvements in the LAFD's response to discrimination complaints. But he also faulted the handling of some accusations against firefighters, criticized how complaints against top brass were being handled and found that a professional standards unit created to investigate personnel complaints lacked the capacity to do its job effectively.

“We can’t discount that because he’s not here anymore,” said Delia Ibarra, the board’s president. “This is a big problem in the department. This is not time to retreat from these issues.”

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ben.welsh@latimes.com

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