The leader of Orange County’s largest firefighting agency suddenly resigned, after a group of managers called for him to step down over concerns they declined to make public.
Jeff Bowman has yet to publicly explain why he abruptly left his job Thursday as chief of the Orange County Fire Authority. His short resignation letter didn’t give a reason.
An active effort is underway by the firefighters’ union and Fire Authority board members to bring Bowman back – at least until a permanent replacement is found, according to a union statement and members of the Fire Authority board.
Bowman continues to have strong support from the rank-and-file firefighters’ union, according to a union letter, but apparently was pushed out by mid-level managers amid tension over issues they have yet to reveal publicly.
The Fire Authority serves as the fire department for two-thirds of Orange County’s cities, including Santa Ana and Irvine, covering 1.7 million people. It is also the fire department for the county’s unincorporated areas, such as rural canyons.
For almost three years, until last week, Bowman led the Fire Authority as its chief executive.
But he apparently lost the support of middle management, who called for his resignation last week. The call came from the Chief Officers Association, a union that represents more than 40 division and battalion chiefs, each of whom supervise multiple fire stations.
Members of the union voted unanimously Aug. 15 in support of Bowman resigning, and asked him to step down in a meeting Thursday morning, according to a letter the union later sent to Fire Authority board members.
The meeting took place around 10:45 a.m. Thursday, where the union’s leadership told Bowman it would be reporting “his conduct” to the Fire Authority’s governing board, wrote Battalion Chief Cliff Bramlette, president of the Chief Officers Association, in his Sunday letter to the board.
“Out of respect for him, and to save the organization further embarrassment, we recommended he resign before our position paper was presented to the [Fire Authority] Board. The Fire Chief resigned shortly after our meeting.”
The letter doesn’t specify what caused the managers to lose faith in Bowman, other than saying the fire chief created unspecified “tensions,” and that managers had “serious concerns regarding the Fire Chief’s conduct.”
Bramlette didn’t return phone and email messages asking why the managers wanted Bowman to step down. And Bowman didn’t return a request for comment through an Fire Authority spokesman.
Bowman abruptly announced his resignation Thursday in a brief letter to his bosses, the Fire Authority board members.
“It is with a heavy heart that I tender my resignation, effective this date, as Chief of the Orange County Fire Authority,” Bowman wrote, adding he was appointing Assistant Chief Dave Anderson as acting chief.
“I have enjoyed my tenure here, and would like to believe I have made a positive difference to the OCFA. I wish you all the very best for the future.”
The resignation apparently caught Fire Authority officials by surprise, including board members who learned of it after the fact.
“It came very suddenly, and we were just informed [as board] yesterday afternoon,” said county Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, who serves on the Fire Authority’s board, in an interview Friday.
“Chief Bowman is really great to work with,” she said, and his sudden resignation “leaves us with a huge leadership gap at the agency.”
“I don’t think it’s in anyone’s best interest, particularly for public safety purposes, to have that significant of a leadership gap, at the Orange County Fire Authority.”
The management union’s opposition to Bowman move could be related to an ongoing dispute between the Fire Authority and Sheriff’s Department over who gets to rescue people with helicopters.
The management union strongly opposed a proposed agreement struck under Bowman’s leadership to have the two agencies trade off week to week in handling the rescues. That proposal ultimately fell apart after the Fire Authority board rejected it, and the helicopter dispute remains unresolved.
Another theory, put forth by Supervisor Todd Spitzer in an interview with the Orange County Register, is the management union opposed Bowman because of his promotion decisions.
Meanwhile, the firefighters’ union strongly backs Bowman – and wants him to come back.
“Because we do not think that it is in the best interest of the OCFA and our Firefighters, we are actively encouraging Chief Bowman to reconsider his decision to step down,” said Baryic Hunter, president of the Orange County Professional Firefighters Association, in a statement.
“While we haven’t always agreed on every issue, he has been a solid leader and fought for the best interests of our Department, our Firefighters and our citizens.”
Joe Kerr, a longtime former leader of the firefighters’ union who still works with the group, said they’re actively trying to get Bowman to return.
“The firefighters’ association [is] working hand in hand with elected leaders to make sure that the leadership role of fire chief and other executive staff is filled with the highest caliber people,” Kerr said. “And to that end…it’s our goal to retain Chief Bowman [until] the end of the year, or at least until we can find a suitable replacement.”
Fire Authority board members plan to discuss the issue at a special meeting Thursday, which has been updated to add a closed session agenda item about appointing a fire chief.
The meeting agenda also includes a closed session discussion about initiating litigation over “Air Operations,” an apparent reference to the Sheriff’s Department helicopter dispute.
Bartlett said she hopes Bowman will come back and serve until a replacement is found.
“I would hope that would be the case. And that will be sorted out, certainly at the board level, on Thursday at the special board meeting,” she said.
Spitzer says the board will ask Bowman to come back and serve while a new chief is sought.
“The chief will stay if the board wants him to,” Spitzer told the Register. “All his assistant chiefs are new. So if he were to leave now, the agency would be in serious trouble.”
The Fire Authority’s chairwoman, Buena Park Mayor Elizabeth Swift, declined to say whether she wants Bowman to return, saying it’s a personnel matter and can only be talked about in closed session.
“I think it’s really important for the whole board together” to discuss it, Swift said.
Bowman was brought on as fire chief in September 2014, as part of an effort to overhaul the upper echelons of an agency that was beset by political infighting and management failures.
He previously served for 16 years as chief of the Anaheim Fire Department and four years as chief of the San Diego Fire Department.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at [email protected].