A fountain of rumors, speculation and political intrigue have gushed from the Orange County Fire Authority in recent months, with specific focus on Fire Chief Keith Richter’s job performance.

Richter has been the subject of three closed sessions in recent weeks held by either the Fire Authority’s 25-member board or its executive committee, and another is scheduled for Thursday.

Yet, while the board continues to meet in secret, a $100,000 management audit that sheds light on Richter’s performance and other issues within the agency has been locked away under legal review — with its projected release now set for the May 22 board meeting, two months later than planned.

The audit by Costa Mesa-based Management Partners was originally slated to be released no later than March 24.

And during a Jan. 23 Fire Authority board meeting, Cathy Standiford, who headed up the Management Partners audit team, said the firm would issue interim reports to update the board on the review.

At that meeting board members, notably Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, urged the firm to issue the interim reports so there wouldn’t be any surprises when the final audit was completed.

But interviews and records indicate interim reports weren’t made.

The agency was involved in so many complex issues in recent months that The Management Partners review updates got lost, said David Shawver, Stanton’s mayor who sits on the Fire Authority board and its executive committee.

“There were never any updates; that never happened,” said Shawver. “The executive committee dropped the ball, and Fire Authority upper management and Management Partners never made it happen.”

Management Partners Standiford didn’t respond to an interview request last Friday. Neither did Spitzer.

On April 10, Fire Authority board clerk Sherry Wentz told a Voice of OC reporter that the Management Partners report was not available because upon receipt it went directly to the agency’s general counsel, David Kendrick.

However, Wentz didn’t say when the report was submitted and Kendrick didn’t respond to an interview request.

In recent weeks as political intensity over job grew, speculation about the Management Partners report also increased among agency observers and emergency services that partner with the Fire Authority.

For instance, the Fire Authority firefighters union, the Orange County Professional Firefighters Association, launched a full-fledged campaign to oust Richter — culminating at the April 24 board meeting, which was packed with firefighters making critical statements of his management regime.

That meeting involved multiple closed sessions and lasted nearly till midnight.

Although he could not discuss specifics due to personnel requirements, Shawver noted he first received a copy of a draft of the Management Partners report in late March. He added that a draft of the report then went to the full executive committee on April 14 during a closed personnel session.

Anytime a report raises the possibility of litigation or liability exposure for the Fire Authority, the document goes first to the attorney for review, Shawver said.

“The attorney has to do his due diligence,” Shawver said. “We all would have liked everything on a different time table, but our plate was overflowing. We were buried at one point, digging our way out.”

In February, for instance, state officials required the county Health Care Agency to conduct the selection process for 19 municipal ambulance providers instead of the Fire Authority — saying the county violated legal requirements for the bidding process for ambulances to transport 911 patients treated by Fire Authority paramedics.

Once the legal review is complete, Shawver insisted the Management Partners report will be released in its entirety.

“Nothing will be deleted, nothing will be censored,” he said.

Thursday’s closed session will be the first time the full board will have the opportunity to review and consider all the documentation associated with the chief’s review.

This process has gone on longer than anticipated in part, Shawver said, because the fire chief activated a clause in his contract that allowed him to have the full board conduct his performance review. Only the board’s executive committee initially was to do the chief’s review, he added.

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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