MONTEREY PARK — City Manager Mark Lewis has reprimanded Fire Chief James O. Page for a series of internal Fire Department memos that comment unfavorably on local political leaders and refer to residents as "the great unwashed masses."
For example, the memos call former City Councilman Cam Briglio "a master of misinformation" and refer to former Acting City Manager David P. Bentz as "no dummy" whose temper, "when it flares . . . tends to reveal his true feelings."
The purpose of the periodic memos was to outline the Fire Department's strategy in support of a proposed takeover of the city's fire safety operations from the county Fire Department. The Times last week obtained copies of the memos, called Countdown, which were edited by Page and written by him and three members of the Monterey Park Firefighters Assn.
The City Council earlier this year approved a study of whether the takeover would save money, result in better fire protection, and benefit local firefighters in terms of career opportunity, pay, promotions and pensions.
Fire District Mergers
In the last three decades, the move toward regional fire protection has gathered momentum throughout the Los Angeles area. Forty-seven small and medium-sized communities have merged with the Los Angeles County Consolidated Fire Protection District.
Lewis, who became city manager Aug. 22, said: "Somebody asked me if I was going to fire the fire chief. I said no. I'm new on the job, and I'm not going to fire the chief."
Lewis would not say how he learned about the Countdown. Several council members said they were shocked last week when they found out about the memos, which have been distributed to firefighters since last spring.
The city manager met privately last Friday with Page, a Monterey Park native who was once a county Fire Department battalion chief and who was appointed the city's chief in 1986. On Saturday, Lewis briefed the council in a closed session. He met with Page again Monday.
Neither Lewis nor Page would provide specifics about their discussions, except to say that they were very frank. Lewis would not say what, if any, disciplinary action he took against Page.
The chief did say that he would "not continue to edit or distribute the memos." But he said he could not stop the firefighters association from writing about the possible takeover.
Lewis said the two "talked about why the content of the Countdown was not appropriate." But he added: "I don't think the idea of publishing the Countdown is inappropriate. The concept of communicating in writing on daily basis with the people that work for you is not a bad concept. It just got carried away in this case, and the chief understands that."
Page characterized his meetings with Lewis as the equivalent of a child being taken by a parent to a back yard woodshed for punishment. "I think Mr. Lewis and I are very clear what he expects from me. I think he is the best thing to hit Monterey Park in a long time. Mr. Lewis wants me to participate with him in elevating the level of public policy discussion (on the takeover issue) . . . so it can be done in a more deliberate, less emotional manner."
The chief made these comments Tuesday in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C., where he was attending the International Assn. of Fire Chiefs convention. He addressed the convention on how the Monterey Park department has overcome language barriers in a community where many people speak only the languages of Asia and Latin America.
Mayor Christopher F. Houseman called the memos "an unfortunate occurrence."
Likewise, Mayor Pro Tem Barry L. Hatch said, "it's regrettable, and I have strong, strong feelings about it."
Neither Houseman nor Hatch would comment further.
Page, the chairman of the board of three fire safety and emergency services publications distributed nationally, said publishing the memos was a way to counter rumors and to provide accurate, up-to-date information to Fire Department personnel concerned about the takeover issue.
The memos, which were not made available to the public, were posted in fire stations and could be obtained by firefighters at the chief's office.
Although he did not usually write the memos, Page said, he would meet daily with at least one of the three firefighters he appointed to write them, and he would review the material.
Capt. Mark Khail, one of the three who helped write the memos, said he could not comment on the matter. Union spokesmen could not be reached for comment.
Page defended the memos, saying that by working closely with the firefighters association in publishing them, he defused labor-management tensions.
'Took a Chance'
Describing himself as an untraditional fire chief, Page said: "I took a chance with my people and made myself vulnerable."
Before he became chief, Page said, the department had not been managed well, and "I had to turn that around." During his tenure, he said, no grievances have been filed by the firefighters association.