Firefighters Assail Search for Chief

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles firefighters are sharply criticizing Mayor Richard Riordan's handling of the selection process for a new fire chief as unduly subjective and secretive.

Capt. Ken Buzzell, president of the 3,000-member Los Angeles firefighters union, said he believes the process favors acting Chief Bill Bamattre.

"Nobody knows what questions are being asked of candidates or how they're being evaluated," Buzzell said. "I think the mayor's trying to stack the deck to put in someone who'll go along with his budget cuts and allow the [mayor's] staff to micro-manage him."

One City Hall insider familiar with the process also said the mayor is privately backing Bamattre. "The word has been out for a long time that as long as Bamattre toed the mark with the budget process, the job was his," the source said.

Riordan spokeswoman Noelia Rodriguez denied the allegations. "To suggest back-room dealing is not reality, and is insulting and offensive," she said.

The city is in the final phase of its search for a new fire chief to take over a department strained by pending staff cuts and charges of racism and sexism within its ranks.

Six men are vying for the job that became available when Chief Donald O. Manning quit last year after rancorous City Council and Fire Commission meetings in which the department's record in hiring and promoting minorities and women was criticized.

Interim Chief Bamattre's term expires in May, and the former battalion chief and previous mayor of Dana Point is among the candidates for chief.

Unlike the 1992 police chief search, there has been no written or oral examination for fire chief applicants and the final candidates' identities have been kept confidential.

Rodriguez said the finalists' names were not released because the chief's selection "is a personnel matter that has to have a level of confidentiality."

But Battalion Chief Robert De Feo, president of the Chief Officers Assn., criticized what he called the secrecy of the process. "It just doesn't seem straight. We don't know who the six are or what criteria are being used to make the final cut," he said.

For the first time, the finalists include applicants from other fire departments as well as Asian American and African American candidates. The city last named a new fire chief in 1983.

The Stentorians, an African American firefighters group, has attacked the search process as too subjective because it reportedly centers on interviews. Latino firefighters have complained about the absence of a Latino on the short list in a city where Latinos make up nearly half the residents.

The fire chief's job will be filled by a mayoral appointment with City Council approval. The position's salary range is $121,167 to $181,698 annually.

Applications for the job were due Jan. 29. A panel consisting of Jurutha Brown, interim general manager of the city Personnel Department, Fire Commission Vice Chairman Kenneth Lombard and Glendale Fire Chief Richard Hinz selected 11 semifinalists.

The semifinalists were interviewed by a six-member group. The racially mixed panel selected the six finalists.

Interviews with the finalists will begin Wednesday, and will be conducted by Riordan, Fire Commission member David Fleming and council members Jackie Goldberg and Laura Chick.

Chick said the role of those conducting the final interviews has not been explained to her. "If there are four of us, how do we vote? There could be a 2-2 split," Chick said. "What I'm hearing is that the mayor makes this decision. He's just, as some kind of courtesy, asked us to sit in."

Riordan aide Rodriguez said the mayor could have picked a chief without setting up the interview panels. "We are really extending the hand of inclusion," she said.

Sources close to the selection process have confirmed that in addition to Bamattre, the finalists include the fire chiefs of San Diego (Robert Osby), Cincinnati (Thomas Steidel), Washington (Otis J. Latin Sr.) and Ventura County (James E. Sewell) and Darrel D. Higuchi, a deputy chief with the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

Times staff writer Jodi Wilgoren and correspondent Maki Becker contributed to this story.

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