Manhattan Beach firefighters, some fighting back tears, aired grievances against Chief Robert Espinosa Tuesday night at the Manhattan Beach City Council meeting citing an increase in paramedic response times as well as alleged workplace intimidation and retaliation.
The firefighters union held a "no confidence" vote in January, with 21 out of 25 members voting in favor and one member abstaining.
Firefighters said they first raised concerns with city officials in 2015 when the first of three consultants was hired to resolve the issues. With relations still strained, Espinosa announced his retirement in October of last year. He had been chief six and a half years and was set to depart Dec. 23.
But, less than a week prior to saying goodbye, Espinosa rescinded his retirement to give the city six months to work through the transition from Mark Danaj to Bruce Moe in the city manager’s office.
Several firefighters, with friends and family wearing red in a show of support, described a mismanaged and toxic working environment.
“The reason we're moving forward publicly now is because the fire chief and the city have broken their promise for the chief to retire on Dec. 23,” said Captain Dave Shenbaum, vice president of the union. “Firefighters waited patiently and worked with the city, staff and council through what we thought would be his retirement date. Once that was rescinded, this is why we're moving forward because it's now affecting public service in a negative way.”
At the top of their list of grievances is the automatic aid agreement the city has with Los Angeles County for paramedic services.
Prior to the county taking over the fire department in Hermosa Beach last year, the two cities had a cohesive mutual aid agreement, Shenbaum said. But, since the county took over, paramedics now come from adjacent cities to the east including Hawthorne, Lawndale and Lomita, rather than Hermosa Beach.
The change has delayed paramedic transfer services to area hospitals often by 20 minutes or more, according to firefighters. City Manager Bruce Moe said response times average five minutes or less 70 percent of the time.
Shenbaum said the chief is negligent in not working to establish agreements as they had in the past and forging a new agreement possibly with El Segundo. But, Espinosa said in an interview, it’s out of his hands.
“I can't force the county into accepting an automatic aid agreement,” said Espinosa, who made the case that the county has actually increased the amount of resources available in terms of fire engines and other services.
“Coming from Hawthorne and Lawndale, geographically it's farther than Hermosa, but we have other options if there are extended times to arrival,” Espinosa said.
Among their other complaints, the firefighters said the city has wasted taxpayer money on disciplinary investigations and workplace consultants, spending well over $100,000. They say the department purchased a $50,000 software program that did not meet their expectations.
Firefighters also say the chief is responsible for a breakdown in communication with LA County lifeguards, who have stopped coordinating with MBFD. They said Espinosa threatened to terminate firefighters who performed ocean rescues.
Relations apparently reached a boiling point in December when all fire captains certified as acting battalion chiefs resigned from their positions and gave up pay solely out of concern for working under the chief.
After an outside law firm investigated workplace matters last year, a report they produced acknowledged one instance where the chief was potentially intimidating. The report, which is available for public review with redactions, found all other claims unfounded.
Espinosa denied he was ever disciplined.
At Tuesday's council meeting, City Manager Moe took responsibility for asking Espinosa to stay on for an additional six months. There was just too much going on, he said, when he first took office in December as acting city manager. The City Council had just put former City Manager Mark Danaj on paid administrative leave less than a week before Espinosa was set to retire. The department still needed to appoint an interim chief.
“I find this action unnecessary and unfounded as it could negatively impact our ability to recruit the next fire chief," Moe said at the meeting. "Most importantly there has been no impact on public safety.”
Espinosa denied he was ever urged or pressured to retire.
"It just made sense that it was a good time for me to go and I felt like the city was ready for new leadership," Espinosa said.
Before coming to Manhattan Beach, Espinosa served as the fire chief in Rialto for two and half years and worked for the fire department in Long Beach for 24 years. Before that he served in El Segundo and as a firefighter in the Army.
"I do love the community of Manhattan Beach," Espinosa said a few days before the council meeting. "The fire department is an outstanding department. We have some really fine people who work for the fire department who really do care about the community."
Shenbaum said it was not an easy decision for the 26-member fire department to make their grievances public. For three years, they have worked quietly behind the scenes, he said.
"This has been extremely difficult internally," Shenbaum said. "We have put our heads down and just tried to deliver outstanding customer service to our community. But this is really tearing us apart. This is a group of firefighters that has always had a good relationship with past city officials, past fire chiefs and fire administrations. We have done everything that was asked of us to work through the process to resolve our differences and we finally got a resolution and then the fire chief and the city reneged on that promise."