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Dispute Pushes Fire Chief To Brink

Black firefighter's lawsuit could lead to departure today.

Hired As A Reformer

Racially divisive debate raged to top levels of City Hall.

December 01, 2006|Robert J. Lopez and Jim Newton | Times Staff Writers

City officials are expected to announce today that William Bamattre, who has led the Los Angeles Fire Department for more than a decade as it struggled to overcome a history of insensitivity to minorities and women, is stepping down.

The departure would make the chief the highest-level casualty of a racial discrimination lawsuit that created a wave of public reaction and left the City Council hamstrung for weeks.

City leaders declined to discuss the details of Bamattre's departure Thursday night, but a news conference has been scheduled for today and sources familiar with the plans said they expect Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to announce that the chief is leaving.

Bamattre "became a liability for the department and the city," said one official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter. "The situation became unsustainable."

Bamattre's fortunes declined precipitously in recent days, as City Hall was consumed by the case of Tennie Pierce, a black firefighter whose spaghetti sauce was laced with dog food at his station house in 2004.

Pierce, an African American who was nicknamed "Big Dog," said he was humiliated by the event and further embarrassed by taunting in its aftermath that drove him from the job.

He sued the city, and after negotiations the city attorney's office recommended settling the case by awarding him $2.7 million. The City Council accepted that recommendation, but the controversy expanded when KFI-AM (640) radio show hosts John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou posted photographs online of Pierce engaging in apparent hazing himself.

The result has been a racially divisive debate that has raged to the top levels of Los Angeles government. In council deliberations, all that body's black members have stood with Pierce, while the majority this week sided with Villaraigosa and upheld his veto.

For Bamattre, the rising public indignation over the lawsuit and the further hazing revelations underscored the prevalence of a Fire Department culture that the chief had long vowed to address, though he did so with limited success.

In 1994 and again this year, city audits found that minorities and women in the agency complained that they had seen or heard of racism in the department. Bamattre, in fact, got the job as interim chief in 1995 because of those allegations, and he was then seen as the man who would reform the department.

The problem, he said in recent interviews, was changing a culture that didn't want to change. He had at his disposal relatively few tools, he said. Earlier this week he told council members at a hearing that the maximum punishment he could impose was 30 days' suspension. That, he argued, did not give him sufficient authority to root out the persistent attitudes.

Villaraigosa's election in 2005 may have sealed Bamattre's fate. Within four months of taking office, the mayor appointed new commissioners for the department and charged them with cleaning it up once and for all. The commissioners have since been working on a plan to implement new rules and discipline for the 3,900-member agency.

As the Pierce case spiraled into a regionwide story, calls for Bamattre's departure began. The signal that the end was near came earlier this week when Councilman Jack Weiss, chairman of the council's Public Safety Committee, and Controller Laura Chick called for his firing. Bamattre's fate wavered in recent days and word began to spread that his time was running out.

In the last two days, City Hall officials, including Fire Commission President Dalila T. Sotelo, began contacting representatives of firefighter groups and asking for names of candidates for interim chief, according to sources familiar with the discussions.

Among the names submitted were those of Assistant Chief Doug Berry of the Fire Prevention Bureau and veteran Battalion Chief Millage Peaks.

Both men, who are African American, are well respected among many members of the department. Peaks was one of the highest-ranking black firefighters to speak out publicly against racism and sexual harassment after the scathing 1994 city audit that helped topple Fire Chief Donald O. Manning.

robert.lopez@latimes.com

jim.newton@latimes.com

Times staff writers Steve Hymon and Duke Helfand contributed to this report.

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