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Bamattre to step down Jan. 1

Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles Fire Chief William Bamattre brought an abrupt end Friday to his 11-year run atop a department nationally hailed for public safety but hamstrung by persistent harassment within its ranks.

Amid heavy pressure from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Bamattre conceded that it was no longer politically possible to remain on the job.

Standing outside a training facility in Panorama City and flanked by 50 uniformed officers, the chief said he would step down Jan. 1, then retire in March after 31 years of city service.

Bamattre has been widely credited with improving the department’s emergency response time, including the move to put a paramedic unit in each of the city’s 103 neighborhood stations.

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But like his predecessors in the Fire Department, as well as the city’s police force, his inability to significantly improve race and gender relations became an Achilles’ heel.

The latest incident to roil the department involves a black firefighter who alleged in a lawsuit that his peers at a Westchester fire station slipped dog food into his spaghetti dinner in a racist stunt in 2004. The City Council and City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo attempted to settle the case for $2.7 million before photos publicly emerged showing the firefighter himself engaging in firehouse hazing years earlier.

But Villaraigosa exercised the first veto of his term when public outrage grew shrill, and there is still debate among some council members whether it was a prank gone awry or racism.

The council upheld the veto Wednesday, after grilling Bamattre for nearly three hours in a session closed to the public.

“Over the past few days, I have come to the appreciation that these current issues have political implications beyond the scope of the Fire Department,” Bamattre said Friday, reading from prepared remarks. “I have become the focus of the debate and that is to the detriment of the LAFD. I will not allow that to continue.”

Later departing from his text, Bamattre choked up as he thanked fellow firefighters and his family. Firefighters then escorted him to a car, where his sister, also emotional, leaned into the car and kissed him.

During an afternoon news conference at City Hall, Villaraigosa praised Bamattre as a “class act” and a “dedicated public servant,” but said the time had come for a new leader who could root out the discriminatory and hazing practices that have been identified in repeated audits and lawsuits.

“I intend to bring in a chief who will eliminate hazing and harassment from the ranks of our city Fire Department once and for all,” Villaraigosa said.

The mayor said that he would announce an interim chief in coming days and that the city would conduct an international search for a permanent leader, considering candidates inside the department and elsewhere.

“I’m looking for one thing: a change agent, someone committed to providing the leadership we need,” the mayor said.

Villaraigosa said his staff and Bamattre reached a “mutual agreement” for the chief to step down. As recently as Monday, Bamattre had told council members and the media that he intended to stay until his planned retirement date in February 2008.

During the last three years, Fire Department employees have filed 14 claims and 15 lawsuits alleging workforce problems, according to Jonathan Diamond, a spokesman for the city attorney’s office.

In addition to the dog food case brought by Firefighter Tennie Pierce, a case is expected to go to trial early next year involving Brenda Lee, a black lesbian firefighter who joined the force in 1993 and has alleged that she was discriminated against and transferred to more than half a dozen stations before being forced to take medical leave.

Bamattre’s resignation brought mixed reactions.

“I’ve had numerous discussions with him on some of these issues, and I know that he was passionate about getting the department back on track,” said Councilman Greig Smith. “I think he’s becoming the scapegoat for a lot of things that aren’t his fault.”

Scapegoat was also a word used by Earl Ofari Hutchinson, an activist in the African American community.

“The problems of harassment and hazing have been well known to the mayor and the City Council and the Fire Commission for a long time,” Hutchinson said. “It seems hypocritical and disingenuous to make one person the fall guy for the failure of a lot of people in City Hall.”

However, Fire Commissioner Genethia Hudley-Hayes, who is African American and was appointed last year by the mayor, said friends and colleagues had approached her in recent days, angry over the specter of persistent discrimination in the department.

“I am deeply troubled about the high degree of tolerance for hazing, inappropriate behavior, the objectification of women and discriminatory remarks,” she said.

Pat McOsker, outgoing president of United Firefighters of Los Angeles, said Bamattre “is a very nice guy, he’s a very smart guy, he’s very well spoken and he puts his best foot forward for the fire service when talking about an issue.

“But he’s also a ‘my way or the highway’ type, and that translates to a heavy-handed management style all the way down through the ranks,” McOsker said.

Bamattre’s departure had been the subject of discussions between the mayor’s office and the chief for several months.

In the aftermath of a critical audit released earlier this year by City Controller Laura Chick, the two sides began talking about needed changes and the best time for the chief to leave. The survey of new recruits and minority and female firefighters found that huge majorities of African Americans and women reported either experiencing or being aware of harassment within the department.

Villaraigosa did not ask Bamattre directly for his resignation. Instead, his chief of staff, Robin Kramer, met with the chief earlier this week to convey the mayor’s view that it was time for a change, said a City Hall source who spoke on condition of anonymity.

One Villaraigosa aide said the idea was to let Bamattre announce his resignation at his own news conference.

Bamattre is the seventh fire chief in the last 50 years, and only the second since 1983. He got the job in 1995 after his predecessor, Donald Manning, resigned amid allegations that women and blacks were being expunged from the force because of discrimination.

It was the uproar over the Pierce case that spelled the end for Bamattre.

Although council members sympathized with the firefighter, some were skeptical that the case warranted such a large award.

But black leaders saw that as a failure to grasp that feeding dog food to any black person is equivalent to treating him as a dog.

Genie Harrison, Pierce’s attorney, has also alleged publicly that Fire Department investigators ripped up their first internal report on the dog food incident and replaced it with a version more friendly to the department.

City officials have yet to respond to that allegation, although Bamattre forcefully denied it in a brief interview later Friday.

Councilman Jack Weiss and some other council members said they remain troubled that Delgadillo hasn’t provided them with more information about the case, such as the Fire Department’s internal investigation of the Pierce allegations.

On Friday, Councilmen Smith and Dennis Zine called for the hiring of an outside counsel to independently review the case.

That provoked a statement from Delgadillo’s office, which again defended its handling of the case and pointed to its success in reducing liability payouts for the city by “millions of taxpayer dollars.”

The mood among the Fire Department’s rank-and-file and command staff appeared grim at the news conference.

“He’s been my friend and my colleague for 30 years, and I’m very disappointed to see his career end on this note -- too suddenly and without the ability to finish all that he started,” said Battalion Chief James Cairns.

McOsker of the firefighters union said he thought it was time for a change.

Bamattre has “made the argument that he’s the perfect person to enact changes because he’s only got a year left and therefore doesn’t have a stake in the outcome,” McOsker said. “But that doesn’t make any sense to me. We need someone who has a stake in the outcome and who will be around and can be held accountable for the changes that need to be made.”

duke.helfand@latimes.com

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Steve Hymon contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Excerpts from Bamattre’s statement

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This morning I submitted a letter to the mayor informing him of my retirement. I will step down as fire chief on Jan. 1, 2007.

This was a difficult decision. As fire chief, my actions have always been guided by three tenets:

What’s best for public safety;

What’s best for firefighter safety;

What’s best for the department.

Current fire department issues have received widespread media attention and have disproportionately required the attention of both the mayor and Council. It has also begun to adversely impact the ability of the LAFD to appropriately address other important issues and initiatives.

As fire chief, I accept the accountability and responsibility to manage whatever issues that the department must deal with. I remain resolute and confident in my ability to meet the challenges presented by these issues. As fire chief for the past 11 years, I will stand on the merits of my record and am proud of the department’s accomplishments under my leadership.

However, I have always placed the interest of the department above my own personal interest. I am also a political realist.

Over the past few days, I have come to the appreciation that these current issues have political implications beyond the scope of the fire department. I have become the focus of the debate and that is to the detriment of the LAFD. I will not allow that to continue. This is my decision and it is the appropriate time.

I have spoken with the mayor, and he is in agreement. I have a great deal of respect for the mayor and the Council members. Their individual talents, empathy and leadership are exceptional. Their challenge will be to keep the collective interests of the city of Los Angeles above their own aspirations and political concerns. I am hopeful that they will work together to resolve the difficult issues that lay before them.


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