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Manning's Out, but Who Got Burned? : Public service: An effective fire chief was sacrificed for no good reason.

May 05, 1995|ROBERT S. WOLFE | Robert S. Wolfe, a Los Angeles appellate lawyer, is a board member of the Consumer Protection Fund and the Center for Law in the Public Interest. and

The abrupt departure of Donald O. Manning from his 12-year tenure as chief of the Los Angeles city Fire Department is disturbing for what it says about us and our attitude about government. Our trust of public institutions has fallen. We anticipate failure. We presume graft and greed. We endlessly second-guess public officials under changing standards.

But contrary to these expectations, during Manning's tenure the department has prevailed over an extraordinary series of human and natural disasters, including massive firestorms in Topanga, Chatsworth and elsewhere that threatened the physical destruction of vast swatches of the city; the Northridge earthquake; the riots, where firefighters were physically threatened as they attempted to save whole neighborhoods from destruction; the Downtown Central Library fire and the First Interstate tower fire--a literal "Towering Inferno" that few people expected could be saved.

Most other urban fire departments have not faced even one similar disaster. Here, the system worked. Thanks in large part to the courageous efforts of the fire department and to its efficient management, the property loss and, more importantly, the human loss have been minimal compared to what could have been. All of this has been achieved from a department that is smaller by about 440 uniformed firefighters than it was in the late 1970s and that now has a lower budget (measured in 1978 dollars) than it did in 1978.

And the fire department looks like us. It is composed of highly qualified men and women: whites, Latinos, Asians and African Americans. While there were no women firefighters when Manning took over, there are now more than 100, three of whom have been promoted to captain. Manning appointed the first African American deputy chief. Each examination group for entry-level firefighter now consists of 75% minorities.

Why then, did Manning abruptly resign? The answer does not rest in constantly shifting charges against him. The most recent "controversy" held that Manning headed a nonprofit group that sought to acquire private money to pay for a fire museum. There are no allegations that Manning personally benefited from this arrangement or even that he used it as a slush fund. Is this the stuff from which careers should be truncated or reputations diminished? Unlike former Police Chief Daryl Gates, who dragged out the struggle over his tenure, Manning resigned when he believed that an ongoing dispute would jeopardize the department.

This downward spiral must stop. In properly demanding accountability of our public servants, we must remember that along with blame for failure goes credit for success. Will Manning's successor be subjected to the same chorus of mindless negativism? If so, how long will he or she last? And what kind of person will then step in? Unless we change our attitudes, we eventually will reap what we have sown. By assuming the worst--that our leaders are venal or unfit--we should not be surprised if one day we get the kind of government that we ask for.

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