The L.A. Fire Department has been under scrutiny since fire officials acknowledged… (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles…)
Mayoral campaign politics again spilled into a controversy over lagging Los Angeles Fire Department response times Tuesday as the City Council voted to launch yet another investigation into the agency's faulty data.
The department has been under scrutiny since fire officials acknowledged last month that they have been releasing performance reports that made it appear that first responders were arriving at medical emergencies faster than they actually were.
Tuesday's decision to hire outside experts was pushed by two mayoral contenders at the same time that a rival candidate, City Controller Wendy Greuel, has pressed her own audit of the department. A third investigation is being conducted by a statistician brought in by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
The multiple inquiries highlight the stakes for lawmakers — especially those running for office — in a controversy that involves a life-and-death public service for voters citywide.
Council members Eric Garcetti and Jan Perry, both mayoral hopefuls, said an independent review is necessary to restore faith in the beleaguered department. Despite fire officials' explanations of discrepancies in response time data, "folks still don't trust the numbers," Garcetti said.
Greuel, whose auditors have been working on the issue for weeks, said spending as much as $175,000 on an outside review is wasteful, especially when the city is facing layoffs.
"It is a frivolous use of taxpayer funds to duplicate a process that is something that we do every single day," she said. "I can't think of any word to describe it other than political." Perry and a spokesman for Garcetti denied that politics were at play.
But Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles, said politics influence just about everything during election season. He said the "competing oversights" offered by the mayoral candidates suggest that next year's race may be about "who can whip government into shape."
The controversy over emergency response times was political from the start.
It was another mayoral candidate, Austin Beutner, who inadvertently brought the discrepancies to light when he published an online editorial criticizing Garcetti and Perry for approving fire department budget cuts, and Greuel for failing to scrutinize their effect.
Beutner, a former investment banker and onetime Villaraigosa aide, cited Fire Department reports presented to lawmakers that appeared to show a dramatic increase in the time it was taking firefighters to get to the scene of medical emergencies. When The Times inquired about Beutner's claims, the department disclosed it had been miscalculating response times for years. In an effort to explain other discrepancies, Fire Chief Brian Cummings subsequently told the city Fire Commission that the agency had been using projections of emergency response times, instead of actual historical data. That angered some lawmakers, who complained they had relied on the data to make decisions on Fire Department budget cuts.
"It's an absolute mess," Councilman Richard Alarcon said Tuesday.
Greuel said her audit is reexamining the department's calculations and looking at possible effects of budget cuts on the department's performance. She said council members who backed the outside investigation, including Garcetti and Perry, never asked about the nature of her audit.
Yusef Robb, a spokesman for Garcetti, said his boss welcomes the audit, but believes there is a limit to fire and emergency services expertise in the controller's office. He said the outside review would include reports on how response times compare with those at other fire departments and recommendations on how to improve performance. The city may now begin the process of contracting with an outside firm.
Councilman Dennis Zine, who voted against the outside review, said he thought it amounted to an audit of Greuel's audit and would set a bad precedent. Zine is running for City Controller in 2013.