Just 22 months after he took the helm of the Los Angeles Fire Department, Chief Millage Peaks announced Monday that he will be stepping down.
Peaks, who began his career as a firefighter for the city 35 years ago, oversaw the department during a period of unprecedented budget cuts and staff reductions. He said he was leaving on good terms, but acknowledged that the cuts made his time as chief “the toughest years of my life.”
“It has been a very rough experience for me and my family,” Peaks said.
His retirement comes about a month after the City Council approved a controversial redeployment plan that he crafted after Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa ordered the department to trim $54 million from its 2011-12 budget.
The plan, which called for firetrucks or ambulances at about one-fourth of the city’s 106 fire stations to be put out of service, was opposed by the firefighters union and generated an outcry from some firefighters and community members who said it emphasized the bottom line over public safety.
“We think that the cuts were draconian and there will be civilian fatalities as a result,” said Capt. Scott Gould, a department veteran. The plan put Peaks on the defensive — he spent weeks this spring explaining the details to community groups and newspaper editorial boards.
In an interview Monday in his office on the 18th floor of City Hall East, he called the approval of the plan by the council a “major accomplishment.”
“We’ve come up with a great plan that saves the city a lot of money,” Peaks said, noting that the plan is expected to generate $197 million in savings over the next three years, and put an end to the unpopular rotating service brownouts he inherited when Villaraigosa appointed him chief in 2009.
Peaks said he did not face any pressure to leave and is retiring because “the time is right.”
In a statement Monday, Villaraigosa praised Peaks, 58, for his creativity during “the most difficult financial time the department had ever faced.”
“Every single day, Chief Peaks wore the badge with the courage of his convictions to stand up for what he knew to be in the best interest of the department,” Villaraigosa said.
But Gould, like some union leaders, said Peaks should have done more to ward off budget cuts.
“For whatever reason, he decided to become a ‘yes’ man,” Gould said. He said he had been impressed with Peaks when he was a battalion chief working in the field, but that when Peaks became head of the department, “he turned.”
Peaks said he stood up to Villaraigosa when he had to.
When Villaraigosa suggested the department redeploy dozens of staff assistants assigned to battalion and division chiefs, Peaks was a vocal critic of the plan.
He cited other accomplishments during his tenure as chief, including the implementation of an automated system for ambulance billing.
City Councilman Tom LaBonge said Peaks assumed the chief’s seat at a challenging time, when the job was more about budget-balancing than anything else. The department has not hired any new firefighters in three years. Its current budget of $470 million is about $91 million less than it was in 2008-2009.
“It’s a different landscape than it was at the height of the economy,” said LaBonge, who supported the redeployment plan.
Peaks is married, with four adult children and his first grandchild on the way. When he joined the department, in 1976, he was one of only 45 African Americans; now there are hundreds.
He said the face of the department has changed considerably during his career. He noted that he is the department’s second African American chief — the first was the man he succeeded, Douglas L. Barry — and “now our ethnic composition more closely matches the community that we serve.”
Peaks said he believes the firehouse culture has changed too. In the 1990s and 2000s, the department struggled with allegations of hazing and racial unrest among firefighters.
But in recent years, he noted, the department has made news only because of budget cuts.
Peaks will depart July 11, and Villaraigosa will appoint a replacement.