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OCFA Chief Steps Down

IRVINE – Fire Chief Keith Richter will step down as head of the Orange County Fire Authority, a decision that comes on the heels of an audit that found low morale and a sense of favoritism and lack of leadership among the rank and file of the county’s largest fire department.

Richter made the announcement to his executive team in a Tuesday morning meeting, and sent a departmental memo in the afternoon announcing his decision to retire, stating he would be stepping aside because “recent controversies have placed me in a position of being a distraction.”

Richter had said in recent interviews that he had no plans of stepping down from his position and that he intended to remain at the helm of the fire agency to help implement a series of reforms, including starting a professional standards unit to handle internal complaints and investigations. But the 55-year-old chief reversed course, telling his command staff he would step down from the agency effective Aug. 29 – just a few days after his five-year anniversary on the job, and his 37th anniversary in the fire service.

“I have chosen that date because its personal significance, but also because I believe it is the right time for me to turn over the leadership of the OCFA to a Fire Chief chosen by our current Board,” read the memo, which was obtained by the Register.

Richter has faced increasing scrutiny as head of the Fire Authority, but criticism and calls for him to step down intensified late last year while members of the OCFA board discussed his job performance behind closed doors.

More than a half-dozen closed-door meetings concerning Richter’s job kept elected officials occupied in late-night discussions since October, but members of the 25-member board of directors said the board took no reportable action.

It was not immediately clear if the agency’s board of directors has begun taking steps to find a new fire chief.

Asked Monday morning if the board had begun organizing a search committee for a new fire chief, board chair Steven Weinberg said he had no comment.

“Everything that is happening is attorney-client privilege,” Weinberg said.

Richter was hired as chief of the Orange County Fire Authority in 2009, overseeing more than 900 firefighters, 71 stations, 23 cities and an area of more than 1.6 million residents.

In his memo, Richter cited the financial troubles of the agency when he was hired, and said “we have made remarkable progress towards a sustainable future.”

While he has been chief, the Fire Authority gained national accreditation, and added Santa Ana as one of the cities it serves.

The past two years, however, have been the most tumultuous for the Fire Authority under his watch.

In that time, the Fire Authority found it billed more than $1.7 million for inspections that were not done or could not be verified. Officials also found that firefighters disconnected seat belt alarms in several trucks and engines – after an unbuckled fire captain crashed through the window of a truck in a Buena Park crash.

Administrators were later admonished by county supervisors when an email from a battalion chief surfaced suggesting that current ambulance contractors were invited to a “special” meeting before the opening of a bidding process for the lucrative contracts.

The agency lost its oversight of hazardous-materials inspections of businesses, and its role in the contracting of ambulance services.

“I believe the best thing for the agency is for me to step aside and allow a new person to work with our Board to take OCFA into the future,” Richter wrote. “I know how important it is for the Board to have complete confidence that the Fire Chief will follow their policy direction and lead the agency accordingly.”

The chief and his executive management have also seen several responsibilities under their control passed to contractors or to new committees of elected officials, including human-resources issues and labor negotiations.

Members of the agency’s board of directors, as well as labor leaders, called for top-to-bottom changes.

Richter was an at-will employee, meaning he or the board could end his contract with a 60-day notice.

Elected officials had been meeting since October over his performance review, and if there were an active effort to have him fired behind closed doors, it seems there weren’t enough votes from the board of directors to carry the action.

Though elected officials have asked for Richter to resign, officials have declined to comment about the closed-door meetings.

Richter’s retirement Aug. 29 means he will collect a pension from the Fire Authority. Richter also is collecting a pension from the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District, where he was chief before being hired in 2009.

Richter said in a previous interview that his OCFA pension was part of his decision to remain on the job, though it was not the driving force behind his decision.

“I feel that I’ve vested and a benefit has been earned and not been given, and that was part of the agreement when I was hired, so I certainly wouldn’t say I want to bail out before a three-week window of time that will benefit me and my family for the rest of my life,” Richter said in an interview in mid-May, during which he said he planned to stay. “I work for the agency and I work at the pleasure of the board, that’s why we’ve had so many conversations about what’s best for the OCFA and at what point is a transitioning leadership most appropriate.”

Richter’s decision comes after a 64-page audit found a sense from agency employees of bullying, favoritism, lack of leadership and lack of accountability in the department.

“Not wanting to hinder the agency from moving forward in a positive direction, it is time for me to assist with the task of transitioning to a new Fire Chief,” the memo read.

The audit also cited 29 recommendations, 20 of which Richter said he could implement before the end of the year.

According to his announcement, another chief will have to take that task on.

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