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Unleash the Fire Dept. watchdog

L.A. voters dutifully have approved oversight of the department. So where is it?

August 14, 2012

The Los Angeles Fire Department is run by a chief but overseen by a board of commissioners that, to do its job, must be able to delve deeply into the department's inner workings. It should have been unnecessary for the commissioners to go to voters, fire hats in hand, to ask to amend the city charter to make it even clearer that they had the authority to exercise their oversight. Yet in March 2009, that's just what they did when they sought approval of Proposition A to create the position of independent assessor, with the power to audit, assess and review the department's handling of complaints against employees.

Voters, weary of being presented ballot questions on the pickiest of administrative details that ought to be handled in the course of business by competent city leaders, nevertheless approved the measure — and no doubt expected that the department and commissioners could finally tend to their business.

So why is it that, three years later, the commission still must do battle with the chief and city lawyers over whether Independent Assessor Stephen Miller really does have the power to read department records and interview employees? The very existence of Miller's position — not to mention his now-enumerated charter powers to "audit, assess and review" the handling of misconduct complaints, conduct "any audit or assessment" requested by the commission and "initiate any assessment or audit" of the department — should have put to rest any question of his authority.

But it wasn't until last week that the commissioners overrode years of stalling by department brass and overly cautious warnings from the city attorney's office and gave Miller access to the files.

This is an all-too-common problem in Los Angeles. The city supposedly has oversight — an elected controller, boards and commissions, a City Council — but those who should be scrutinizing government often shirk their responsibility. Or they try to embrace it but are blocked by politics or inadequate resources. So voters are asked to add layer upon layer, leaving us knee deep in powerless overseers and unaccountable officials.

In this case it should have been easy, given that the chief and the commissioners all report to the mayor. The job of voters should not be to referee City Hall disputes but to elect a mayor who will do the job and take responsibility for the results. That's something for voters to keep in mind when they go to the polls just over six months from now and elect a new leader of Los Angeles.

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