Audit: ‘Accountability Lacking at All Levels’ of Fire Authority

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Orange County Fire Authority officials came under broad criticism today in a much-anticipated management audit that found “accountability lacking at all levels.”

The independent agency’s 25-person board lacked experience, Fire Chief Keith Richter and his executive team are seen as ineffective, morale is poor, and promotions, discipline and staffing critical positions are mishandled, says the 64-page audit by Management Partners Inc. of Costa Mesa, which was released today.

(Click here to read the audit.)

The Fire Authority’s governing board will address the audit at its May 22 meeting, when pressure may build for Richter’s ouster.

“Leadership is lacking throughout the organization, beginning with the chief and the deputy chief,” said the $100,000 audit commissioned late last year to address growing concerns about the county’s largest fire/emergency service. “Many in leadership positions are not appropriately prepared for their duties.”

It goes on to say that “bullying, harassment and retaliation are perceived to commonly occur within the organization.” This has produced a climate where 81 percent of those surveyed disagreed that morale is good. In particular, the audit notes “discipline is not timely or consistent.”

The audit was released to reporters at a hastily convened late afternoon media briefing. Richter, Management Partners’ Cathy Standiford and three OCFA board leaders were on hand to answer reporters’ questions.

The board members largely stood by the chief and hailed the fire authority — pointing out Richter ordered the report as a way to enhance an agency they contended is recognized as among the nation’s best.

For his part, Richter was contrite about the critical report — which described “a good old boys network” for promotions, and a culture permitting unchallenged employee abuse.

The chief said he maintains an “open door policy,” encouraging employee complaints. “We’ll take every step to investigate,” he said, “And we have.”

He added: “Employees also have the responsibility to call the fire chief” and identify problems that need fixing.

Richter’s contrition did not sway County Supervisor Todd Spitzer — also a member of the Fire Authority board — who upon the release of the audit called for the chief to step down.

“The chief needs to resign,” said Spitzer. “He is not capable of righting the ship. This is about the Fire Authority’s survival; it can’t survive in its current situation.”

Noting the chief could be dismissed on 60 days notice, Spitzer added: “It is my hope the chief would submit his resignation short of the board having to take action. He has to take responsibility.”

Other board members who attended Thursday’s media briefing underscored the importance of the audit, but were not nearly as harsh on Richter as Spitzer.

Steve Weinberg, Dana Point’s mayor who is chairman of the Fire Authority board, said at the press conference:

“This is not an investigative report, but it was how the troops feel. It means we’ve got to address it, and get a positive perception of the agency. Rest assured, this was not an academic exercise.”

Al Murray, Tustin’s mayor and Fire Authority vice chairman who is in line to assume the board chairmanship in coming months, said: “This is a great opportunity for us, as a board, to move forward. We have a new road map to help the chief take it to the next level.”

While the consultant’s report noted numerous issues with the agency’s staffing, management, accountability, discipline and culture, it also identified problems with the board and its leadership.

Revealingly, only 19 of 25 board members themselves responded to a survey requested by the consultants — indicating about one-quarter of the board wouldn’t provide their views.

The board of the joint powers agency, created to provide firefighting and emergency services across the county, is made of representatives of 23 partner cities and two members of the county Board of Supervisors.

Management style is described in the audit as “reactive” to the next crisis, whereas “a proactive style of involving priorities and tactics would be more effective.”

The consultants found a disorganized system of deployments that did not match the most qualified personnel with a job. As key battalion chiefs are rotated among jobs, the consultants found, the system is “flawed,” with the officers seen as “passing through” in a quest for promotion.

“Battalion chiefs often do not have the expertise needed to be effective,” the audit states. And “there is a lack of consistency in management approach” by battalion chiefs and their supervising division chiefs.

This has prompted “the culture to veer toward micromanaging,” the audit states, with employees constantly fearing “blowback” from managers.

Yet, the “degree of discipline is sometimes perceived as to be inappropriate,” the report states, and after management seeks a punishment “the union is able to have the discipline overturned because standards have been inconsistently applied.”

A full 78 percent of those surveyed disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement: “Individuals are held accountable for their actions.”

The report notes the executive leadership and the fire chief himself complained that “efforts to implement greater accountability have been met with significant resistance.”

In essence, the consultants add, Fire Authority leaders have been out-maneuvered by the labor group.

In recent weeks, the Orange County Professional Firefighters Association, the rank-and-file firefighters union, have also called for the fire chief’s ouster.

Responding to the management audit’s 29 specific recommendations, the fire chief is submitting to the Fire Authority board on May 22 an action plan to address the concerns, which would include monthly updates on meeting goals.

Rex Dalton is a San Diego-based journalist who has worked for the San Diego Union-Tribune and the journal Nature. You can reach him directly at rexdalton@aol.com.

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