Orange County Fire Authority Chief Keith Richter announced his resignation, effective Aug. 29, thus ending a short and tumultuous tenure at the public agency.
The agency made the resignation public in a mid-day press release that followed a meeting between Richter and his assistant chiefs.
While citing accomplishments since taking the helm in 2009, including earning a national accreditation for the department, Richter noted that “recent controversies” have put him “in a position of being a distraction for the issues facing OCFA.”
Key among those controversies was a management audit released last month that lambasted the independent agency as lacking accountability at all levels — with reports of disciplinary mismanagement, retaliation against whistleblowers, and contentious relations with the firefighters union.
“Not wanting to hinder the agency from moving forward in a positive direction, it is time for me to assist with the task of transitioning to a new fire chief,” wrote Richter in a memo to all employees.
“I want to express my feeling of honor and gratitude to be able to work with such dedicated people that form this exceptional organization.”
Serving about 1.7 million residents, the Fire Authority provides 911 paramedics and fire suppression equipment from 71 stations.
Steven Weinberg, chairman of the Fire Authority’s board, announced an ad hoc committee will immediately be formed “to begin the selection process for the chief’s successor.”
“Chief Richter has spent his life in public service, keeping homes and families safe, and responding in times of emergency,” Weinberg stated in the news release. “We thank him for his service.”
Al Murray, the Fire Authority’s vice-chairman who may succeed Weinberg when the chairmanship rotates this summer, stated in the release:
“Our agency faces challenges in the future. We’ll be asking our next chief to move our agency forward and address these issues head on. I’m confident our new chief will be ready to serve on day one.”
Rumors have swirled about Richter’s departure for months as he faced sharp criticism from some members of the 25-member board — which represent the agency’s 23 cities; two county Supervisors also serve on the board of the joint powers authority created in the aftermath of the county financial bankruptcy in the 1990s.
County Supervisor Todd Spitzer beat a drum of complaints for months, culminating in an open call last month for Richter to resign after the release of the critical audit by Management Partners Inc. of Costa Mesa.
“The chief has had a distinguished career as a professional firefighter. However, it is clearly time for him to leave,” Spitzer said, noting that the agency and Richter have a non-disparagement agreement.
“The Fire Authority needs a strong and vibrant leader to lead us through the difficult issues presently facing the agency.”
Although the press release did not describe a broad search for a new chief, Spitzer made it clear that he is not in favor of hiring the new chief from within the Fire Authority’s ranks.
“No one on the inside can be the chief of OCFA based on my observations,” responded Spitzer. “I’m not ruling it out. But we need to look very strongly to the outside. We have some very serious problems not resolved internally.”
Spitzer said it is “too early to tell” if there will be an interim chief, given Richter effectively given three months notice.
In his memo to staff, Richter said he is committed to staying as long as the board wishes to ensure a smooth transition.
Prior to coming to Orange County, Richter was fire chief of the Contra Costa Fire Protection District in northern California, where he had been for more than a decade.
Previously, he began his career as a firefighter in 1977 with the Tucson Fire Department in Arizona. He is a graduate of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
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 [email protected]