Thursday, Nov 29, 2006; 6:18 p.m.
City Council backs Villaraigosa's veto in fire department racial bias case
The career of Los Angeles Fire Chief William Bamattre dangled in the balance Wednesday as the City Council backed away from a settlement offered to a black firefighter who accused the department of racial discrimination.
After a lengthy closed session with city attorneys, only six of the 15 council members voted to buck Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's veto of the deal. Janice Hahn, Tom LaBonge and President Eric Garcetti joined the council's three black members in an attempt to keep the settlement in place. But at least 10 votes would have been needed to override the mayor.
Firefighter Tennie Pierce, a robust personality whom some firefighters called Big Dog, sued the city after dog food was slipped into his firehouse meal two years ago by several firefighters.
Two white captains and a Latino firefighter were punished for the incident. But Pierce, who is on administrative leave, said he was ultimately driven from his job by continuing department harassment.
The council had overwhelmingly agreed to settle the case for $2.7 million, but a public outcry prompted Villaraigosa last week to veto the agreement, leading to Wednesday's vote.
Bamattre was present throughout the closed session and was questioned repeatedly by council members over his handling of the Pierce case and other incidents in a department long plagued by allegations of insensitivity. One aide said that while the tone was respectful, there was obvious tension between the council and the chief.
Although the council action does not preclude City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo from conducting further settlement talks, for now the case is headed to court March 19.
"All I have to say is that I look forward to trying the case," said Genie Harrison, Pierce's attorney.
On Tuesday, Pierce offered a tearful appeal to the council and appeared to move several members. Even before, the members who had most consistently supported a settlement were its three African Americans — Bernard C. Parks, Jan Perry and Herb Wesson — who each had his or her own reasons.
"I think we" — the council — "blew this one," Wesson said after the vote. "The entire Fire Department will go on trial."
A visibly troubled Parks — the former Los Angeles police chief long known for his composure — said he believed that the council's action would send a message to African Americans that they cannot get justice even if they raise valid issues of harassment or racism.
He predicted that the case would end up costing the city "significant dollars" in court.
"I think it will come back to haunt the mayor and the city," he said. "The greater message is you can be dehumanized, and nobody cares. I think it was a very poor [decision] that will send shock waves through a community … that will sit back and say, 'The same old thing.' "
Applauding the decision was Councilman Dennis Zine, who had cast the lone vote against settling because he viewed Pierce as the victim of a prank rather than discrimination and thought the payout was excessive.
"I believe we have an obligation to do what's right for the taxpayers," Zine said.
Lisa Hansen, deputy chief of staff for Councilman Jack Weiss, said her boss — a steady ally of Villaraigosa — did not vote to override the veto because he wanted more time to ascertain details of the case.
Councilwoman Wendy Greuel said she also had a "lot more questions."
"I do believe there will be some discussion of a [new] settlement but people felt they didn't have all the information available to them," she said.
Villaraigosa said the council "made the right decision," given the amount of the proposed settlement and the fact that photos had come to light showing Pierce himself participating in Fire Department hazing.
Hours before, the mayor had made cryptic comments that seemed to be paving the way for Bamattre's exit.
A Stanford graduate and one-time Dana Point mayor, Bamattre was promoted to chief in 1995 specifically to clean up the department's reputation. He has already announced his intention to retire in February 2008.
Several City Hall sources confirmed that some officials have discussed whether Bamattre should step down sooner.
When asked directly if Bamattre would still have a job Monday, Villaraigosa declined to answer. During a news conference, the mayor was also asked if the time had come for the city to have a black fire chief.
"We have a chief currently, as you all know," Villaraigosa said. "Should there be a vacancy, nothing would make me prouder than to have a department that is headed by an African American, [a] woman, [or a] Latino."
Late Wednesday, Bamattre said the mayor had not told him he could be removed from his job. "I've always planned on doing a smooth transition with the new person, when they decide to select a new person," the chief said. "I would like them to come in with a firm foundation."
He said the Pierce case showed the difficulties he has faced in rooting out harassment.
"Inside the fire station, there's a strong argument that certain pranks are OK," Bamattre said. "That's an attitude I can't subscribe to, but I can't get the organization to accept that."
photo: Gary Friedman
L.A. City Fire Chief William Bamattre presses his hand to his face as the L.A. City Council decides the claim of firefighter Tennie Pierce.
Firefighter settlement sharply splits council