Embattled Los Angeles Chief Receives Hero's Farewell

Updated: 12-20-2006 03:21:02 PM

City News Service

Amid much pomp and circumstance, embattled fire Chief William Bamattre received a hero's farewell today in front of City Hall, less than two weeks before he resigns his post.

Bamattre, a 31-year veteran of the Los Angeles Fire Department, announced his retirement Dec. 1 in the face of mounting political pressure and criticism over allegations of discrimination and harassment within the agency.

"One constant is change, but the other is that no matter what happens, no matter what challenges we face as a department, these people are here to serve you every day," Bamattre said as his voice broke. "Call 911, and the magic is five minutes later, somebody will be there to solve all your problems."

More than 100 firefighters and department brass saluted Bamattre as his department-issued Ford Crown Victoria slowly rolled past them along Main Street.

His wife, Liz Bamattre, wiped a tear from her eye as he emerged from the car and saluted his colleagues. Bamattre also saluted as a parade of Fire Department vehicles and a four-man mounted unit passed by.

"It's time for a change," he told supporters. "It's not a bad thing, it's a good thing for the department and all of us to go through with that change."

Bamattre's retirement, which is effective Jan. 1, comes amid a racial discrimination lawsuit stemming from a prank in which white firefighters fed dog food to a black colleague in 2004.

The City Council had approved a $2.7 million settlement with firefighter Tennie Pierce, who said he was the victim of discrimination and harassment when fellow firefighters fed him dog food at a Westchester fire station. But Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa vetoed the settlement after seeing photos of Pierce taking part in other hazing incidents.

The City Council then voted 9-6 to sustain Villaraigosa's veto of the settlement.

The case is now scheduled to go to court March 19, but the city could opt to offer another settlement to Pierce.

"I hate to see you go, very candidly, and I don't think you should go, but nevertheless, you decided to retire," said Councilman Dennis Zine, who led efforts to overturn the settlement with Pierce.

"You can say anything you want about the L.A. Fire Department, but people feel safe knowing the L.A. Fire Department's always on watch to protect them and protect their families," he said.

Audits released by City Controller Laura Chick and the city's Personnel Department in January found that a culture of discrimination, harassment and hazing continued to plague the Fire Department, despite efforts to clean it up 12 years ago.

In response to the audits, the Fire Commission last month approved a list of disciplinary guidelines for 145 types of infractions. Other changes are expected in 2007, including a system to better track firefighter behavior and a reconfigured Board of Rights to review disciplinary actions.

"There's a number of reforms coming through this department that are going to make it stronger, and I just want us to remember that ... it started under Bill's watch," said Councilman Greig Smith, who represents the Northridge neighborhood where Bamattre resides.

"I wish Bill was here to complete it because he has the right to be there to complete it," Smith said. "I'm sorry that you're leaving early Bill. I think you have the right to be here, deserve the right to be here and finish the job you started.'

Villaraigosa, who did not attend today's ceremony, said he did not personally ask Bamattre to step down, but members of his staff lowered the boom on the fire chief after a series of meetings dating back to September.

Douglas L. Barry will serve as acting fire chief as city officials conduct a national search to find a permanent replacement. Barry, a 31-year veteran of the LAFD, will be the department's first black fire chief.

Bamattre was hired as the city's 14th fire chief in April 1996 by then- Mayor Richard Riordan.

Bamattre was a 43-year-old battalion chief -- not one of the department's seasoned top brass -- when he was selected to overhaul the agency after long-time Chief Donald Manning abruptly resigned amid allegations of discrimination and financial mismanagement.

Riordan and council members at the time believed that Bamattre's experience as a city councilman and mayor of Dana Point would be useful in cleaning up the department's budgetary problems, which had been long ignored by his predecessor.

Additionally, Bamattre was supported at that time because he was hired from within the Los Angeles Fire Department. City officials had wanted to avoid the same kind of tensions that ensued within the Los Angeles Police Department when Philadelphia Police Commissioner Willie Williams took over for Daryl Gates just years earlier.

During his tenure as fire chief, Bamattre was credited with purchasing new equipment, creating special units, overseeing the construction of 20 new fire stations and bolstering the department's ranks to some 3,400 firefighters.

In his parting speech, Bamattre referred to the underworld characters of the "Lord of the Rings" movie trilogy in praising his supporters and taking a jab at his opponents.

"As I stand here, I have to talk about the diversity of the department, and I can see the hobbits, the elves, the giants," he said. "There's a few orcs out there too, but we'll work on those."