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L.A. Fire Department watchdog says he's denied access to records

The top watchdog at the Los Angeles Fire Department complained Wednesday that fire officials aren't providing him access to the information he needs to do his job.

In a letter to the Board of Fire Commissioners, Independent Assessor Stephen Miller said his recent attempts to gain information about department investigations of misconduct have been blocked by Fire Chief Brian Cummings. According to the letter, Cummings told Miller he was following advice from assistants to City Atty. Carmen Trutanich.

Miller asked the commissioners to order Cummings to provide him access to all Fire Department records and give him permission to interview any employee in the department. He also asked the commissioners to retain legal counsel to take the matter to court if necessary.

Miller and city lawyers have been wrangling over issues of access for nearly two years.

The office of the independent assessor was created by a ballot measure voters passed in 2009, partly in response to soaring settlement costs in employee harassment and discrimination lawsuits at the Fire Department.

According to the city charter, the independent assessor reports to the Fire Commission and has the power and duty to "audit, assess and review the Fire Department's handling of complaints of misconduct committed by employees, sworn or civilian."

But whether the independent assessor should have access to confidential employee information is the subject of debate. In a 2010 letter, city lawyers said Miller did not have access to personnel files.

On Wednesday, Chief Assistant City Atty. Pete Echeverria said he couldn't discuss the specifics of his office's advice to the Fire Department, citing attorney-client privilege. But, he said of Miller, "He's having a great deal of trouble accepting the advice of our office. He wants unfettered access to confidential personnel information that the charter does not give him."

Miller said he does have the right to see those records, and said Trutanich's stance is "preventing the Fire Commission from fully exercising its charter powers to supervise, control, regulate and manage the Fire Department."

And he said the fire chief has been put in "the risky and vulnerable position" of having to decide whether to follow the city attorney's advice.

A spokesman for the department could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.

The Fire Department has been under renewed scrutiny since it was revealed in March that it had been releasing misleading response-time statistics. Officials were accused of a lack of transparency when they subsequently stopped a long-standing practice of providing to the public details about the department's emergency medical responses, including incident times, locations and the nature of the emergencies.

In a situation that paralleled the current debate involving the independent assessor, the fire chief said he made the change on the advice of the city attorney.

William H. Carter, Trutanich's chief deputy, has said that his office only gives advice, and that it is up to department heads to make policy decisions.

He said Wednesday that the independent assessor needs to accept the limits of his job description. "He just needs to learn how to do his job under the authority granted by the charter and stop blaming other departments," Carter said.

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