A 31-year veteran of the Los Angeles City Fire Department has been appointed to serve as its acting chief.
Douglas L. Barry, an assistant fire chief, will be the first African American to serve as chief of the Los Angeles City Fire Department (LAFD) when he takes over for Fire Chief William Bamattre, who announced Friday, December 1st, that he will step down from the position after 11 years.
Barry, a Rancho Palos Verdes resident, will assume the interim fire chief position Monday, January 1st, and will serve until city officials find a permanent replacement for Bamattre.
The change in leadership in the fire department comes amid allegations of discrimination and harassment within the agency, most recently a lawsuit in which an African American firefighter claimed he was the victim of racial discrimination when he was served spaghetti mixed with dog food at a fire station in Westchester in 2004.
Tennie Pierce, a 20-year firefighter, claimed he was the target of harassment by fellow firefighters after he decided to report the incident, which eventually drove him to leave the department.
Two white fire captains and a Latino firefighter were disciplined for the incident, but the case has brought increased attention to allegations of discrimination occurring in the Fire Department.
When announcing his retirement as fire chief, Bamattre said the issues have “political implications beyond the scope of the fire department.”
“I have become the focus of the debate and that is to the detriment of the LAFD,” Bamattre said.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa praised Bamattre for his 31 years of service in the fire department and said the change in leadership was a joint decision.
“New leadership will help set a new tone and extinguish the incendiary practices of hazing and harassment that have plagued the department for some time,” Villaraigosa said in a statement.
The mayor used the first veto of his administration Monday, November 20th, when he rejected a $2.7 million settlement in the Pierce lawsuit against the city.
The Los Angeles City Council had initially voted 11-1 to settle the racial discrimination case on the raecommendation of the city attorney, but Villaraigosa said he vetoed the settlement based on new information and to allow for reexamination of the case.
After the initial vote by the City Council in the settlement, photographs were made public that appear to show Pierce participating in pranks at the fire station.
When the settlement issue came back to the City Council Wednesday, November 29th, the council voted 9-6 to uphold Villaraigosa’s veto. At least ten council votes were needed to override the mayor’s decision.
“Given the magnitude of the proposed settlement and the new facts which recently came to light, I believe the council made the right decision,” Villaraigosa said following the City Council’s vote to sustain the veto.
Pierce’s lawyer, Genie Harrison, said she was disappointed with the City Council vote to reject the settlement but was not surprised that a majority of the council decided to uphold a veto decision by the mayor.
“I thought it was the wrong thing to do,” Harrison said. “It sends a terrible message to all of
the victims out there.”
Harrison praised the City Attorney’s Office for reaching a settlement in the case, even though the City Council has rejected it.
City attorney spokesman Nick Velasquez said the city attorney’s office felt the $2.7 million settlement was “absolutely appropriate,” and came to the figure after taking into account issues such as what future salary Pierce would have earned in the Fire Department, as well as attorney fees.
But while the city attorney recommended a settlement, the office is now committed to the City Council’s decision to take the Pierce case to trial, Velasquez said.
“They asked us to pursue litigation in this matter and that’s what we intend to do,” Velasquez said.
City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents the Westchester area in the 11th Council District, said he voted to sustain Villaraigosa’s veto after learning of the photos that depict Pierce participating in fire station pranks.
Rosendahl said the photos led him to believe that the dog food prank on Pierce was not an act of racial discrimination because Pierce was shown participating in acts of hazing himself.
Some city officials say Pierce may have a strong case when the issue goes to trial and it could end up costing the city more than the initial $2.7 million settlement.
The case is scheduled to go to trial Monday, March 19th.
Velasquez said the City Attorney’s Office is committed to protecting taxpayer dollars.
But Velasquez added that Pierce’s attorneys don’t necessarily have to prove there was racial discrimination to win the case, if they can prove that department retaliation occurred with the incident when Pierce chose to come forth.
As the Pierce case is scheduled to head to trial next year, Harrison said she is confident in her client’s chances for victory in court.
“I feel as strongly as ever about the strength of this case, if not more so now,” Harrison said.
Rosendahl said there is still a chance for the case to return to the City Council for reconsideration, but if it does go to trial, the question of whether or not the city will end up losing more money will be up to a jury.