LAFD comissioners give watchdog 'unfettered access' to discipline files
The Board of Fire Commissioners changed its policy to give the watchdog, or the Office of the Independent Assessor, access to unredacted transcripts and evidence
By David Zahniser
Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — The panel that oversees the Los Angeles Fire Department voted Tuesday to give the agency’s internal watchdog “unfettered access” to the disciplinary files of its firefighters, nine years after voters created the post to assess the agency’s handling of misconduct complaints.
The Board of Fire Commissioners unanimously changed its policy to give the watchdog, known as the Office of the Independent Assessor, the power to obtain unredacted interview transcripts, evidence and other records generated over the course of a discipline case.
Still, the commission stopped short of allowing the office to review unredacted personnel files that are unrelated to discipline. Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas recommended that the panel, made up of appointees of Mayor Eric Garcetti, look at that issue in the future — after conferring with the firefighters’ union and the city’s lawyers.
Commission President Delia Ibarra said the panel had struck a middle ground, balancing the need for transparency with the concerns of United Firefighters of Los Angeles City Local 112, the union that represents firefighters.
“This is how democracy works — in increments,” she said in an interview.
The union had opposed the commission’s policy change on the grounds that it would violate firefighters’ right to privacy. Nevertheless, union President Tony Gamboa praised Terrazas for advising the panel to avoid action on nondisciplinary personnel files.
“I think the fire chief had it right,” he said after the vote.
Tuesday’s decision follows nearly a decade of debate over the role of the independent assessor’s office and the type of records it can obtain. Voters created the position in 2009, partly in response to soaring costs from discrimination and harassment lawsuits.
The department had been roiled by a series of costly misconduct incidents, including one involving a black firefighter who was fed dog food by his co-workers without his knowledge. Nevertheless, City Atty. Carmen Trutanich issued a legal opinion in 2010 saying the watchdog was not entitled to have unfettered access to confidential personnel information.
The department, relying on Trutanich’s opinion, refused for years to turn over unredacted discipline records to the watchdog, said Fire Commissioner Andrew Glazier, who supported the change in policy. That, in turn, prevented the independent assessor from making “timely and complete assessments of discipline in the department, which is the whole point of this position,” he said.
Trutanich’s opinion was contested early on by the department’s first independent assessor, Stephen E. Miller, who accused members of Trutanich’s team of improperly withholding documents. Three of Trutanich’s lawyers responded by suing the city, saying Miller, who is white, had engaged in discrimination and a campaign of harassment.
Each lawyer received a $100,000 settlement, according to the city attorney’s office.
Garcetti became mayor in 2013 and his new appointees on the Fire Commission soon fired Miller — a move welcomed by the firefighter union. Sue Stengel, a mayoral aide, was selected as Miller’s replacement the following year.
Stengel launched an audit this year to find out why women and other groups were graduating from the Fire Department academy at lower rates. Garcetti and his wife, Amy Elaine Wakeland, have made recruitment of women at the department a major priority.
Stengel asked the fire chief on Feb. 1 for journal entries and grading sheets produced during recruit testing. About a half-hour later, Ibarra, the Fire Commission president, sent an email informing Stengel she needed legal advice and permission from the firefighter union.
Ibarra later told The Times she acted to keep the department from being sued.
A week after Ibarra sent her email, City Atty. Mike Feuer produced a new legal opinion rescinding the office’s prior assessment. In the confidential opinion, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, Feuer’s team said a 2017 court ruling meant the independent assessor no longer needed to show a “compelling need” to gain access to the employee personnel files.
That means that access to those files “should be timely and unrestricted,” the opinion said.
Fire Department officials said Stengel already receives access to unredacted copies of the settlement agreements that are reached with firefighters in discipline cases, which include an employee’s name, the type of misconduct and the punishment issued. Tuesday’s vote went further, allowing the office to secure the underlying documents in a misconduct case.
“We have now given her more access than she’s ever had,” Ibarra said.
Stengel declined to comment on the commission’s decision. Gamboa, the firefighters’ union president, said his group is still weighing whether to file a challenge over the disciplinary files.
“[Firefighters’ union] members have a reasonable expectation that their records will remain protected from disclosure ... to an outside entity,” such as the independent assessor, he told the panel.
Commissioner Jimmie Woods-Gray voted for the policy change but said she was unprepared to give the in-house watchdog other unredacted personnel records. Woods-Gray, who has been heavily involved with United Teachers Los Angeles, said employees in that union have long resisted providing access to such records.
“We’re not very open to people looking at our files,” she said.
Copyright 2018 Los Angeles Times