With the Orange County Fire Authority Board of Directors set to meet in closed session Thursday to decide on an interim chief, reports are circulating that the job might actually go to departing Chief Keith Richter.

The swirling, unconfirmed scenario has Richter — who announced his retirement last month amid much controversy — being hired as a consultant to serve through the end of the year, as the agency searches for a new chief.

The notice for tonight’s meeting describes the closed session as: “Public employee appointment/employment, title: Interim chief.”

Asked if Richter was seeking the interim position or was being asked to stay on, Fire Authority spokesman Mike Petro responded via email: “As you mentioned, these are confidential closed session discussions and, at this time, I have no comment.”

The Fire Authority’s regular meeting agenda also includes an item on the hiring of a consulting firm — Ralph Anderson & Associates of Rocklin, Ca., which regularly is used by the agency — for $35,000 to seek a new fire chief by the end of the year.

Richter retired effective Aug. 29, a date he selected as marking his 37 years of fire service, which began in Tucson, Arizona, and brought him to Orange County in 2009.

He announced his departure following a management audit of the Fire Authority revealed poor morale, a workplace where retaliation for reporting issues was feared, and a series of management mistakes, which his political adversaries feasted upon.

Beyond the audit, some of Richter’s own actions became grist for those seeking his ouster.

When the Orange County Professional Firefighters Association began increasing the pressure earlier this year for Richter to resign, union officials distributed a picture of the chief parking his truck in a handicapped space at a fire station he was visiting. This came after he sent out a notice that firefighters in equipment weren’t to use no-parking zones, the union noted.

Richter sent an apology letter to staff, noting he was in error and acknowledging the importance of appearances.

This week, more serious issues arose when the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission in Sacramento, in response to a Voice of OC article, announced it was conducting a review of how one of Richter’s top division chiefs reported his outside income with a consulting firm that regularly did business with the Fire Authority.

Meanwhile, Richter’s ocean-view home in San Clemente is in escrow, according to real estate listings. Fire Authority sources say he is expected to move to the Lake Tahoe region.

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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