SAN BERNARDINO, CA – With a scathing resignation letter, Interim Fire Chief Paul Drasil has quit a job he says was made impossible by cuts to management and by resistance from both the City Council and the firefighters union.
Drasil, 53, said he’s taking earned time off until his official retirement April 15, less than a year into the job.
He was hired as a firefighter in 1986, then took over the department just before the City Council cut several administrative positions in July 2012 to save an estimated $50,000 a year. A week later – on the same day the council first said it intended to file for bankruptcy protection – he wrote a memo warning that the changes would harm the department.
They did, he said in the letter to Mayor Pat Morris that ended nearly 35 years of firefighting.
“I am now held accountable to manage the department, yet the resources I need to do the job have been eliminated by the City Council against my advice and that of the City Manager,” Drasil wrote. “Given the complexity of managing an urban fire department of our size, it is impossible for any fire chief to do so safely and effectively given these cuts to management.”
Opposition from a majority of the City Council members and from leaders of the San Bernardino City Professional Firefighters further hamstrung him, Drasil said.
“From the on-set of my selection as the interim fire chief, the City Council majority has shown a disregard for me and my staff,” he wrote. “It has been made clear to me that I do not have their support or respect.”
Mayor Pat Morris said he appreciated Drasil’s parting advice.
“What you see there is a strong advocate for good management practices,” Morris said. “He knows what it takes to run a department in a city of this size and complexity, and he advocates for good management at every possible turn.”
Drasil told Morris of his coming retirement in January, and candidates for another interim chief will be ready for the council to review Monday, Morris said.
A set of cuts after the bankruptcy filing publicly illustrated the conflict between Drasil, the professional tasked with running the Fire Department day-to-day, and officials elected to set its direction.
Told that all departments would have to cut 30 percent of their budget to help the city erase a $45.8 million deficit, Drasil presented a plan to assign firefighters based on perceived fire risk, reducing overtime 35 percent and save a projected $921,375 for the rest of the fiscal year.
Councilman Chas Kelley said at the time that the plan put managers ahead of boots on the street.
“Ultimately the council are the ones that must and shall ensure that the residents are safe and remain safe, and the proposals that were presented by Chief Drasil closed fire stations and jeopardized the safety of our residents,” Kelley said Monday. “That was the wrong approach.”
Kelley, backed by the fire union and three council members, put forward an alternative plan that leaned heavily on eliminating more managers. Drasil said parts of Kelley’s proposal were “unworkable” and put forward a “compromise” that didn’t include any of the rotating closures that drew council opposition, but reduced staffing for all engine and truck companies to three people each and eliminated a two-person paramedic squad would be lost.
The plan did away with 17 positions, including seven firefighters, but there were no layoffs.
“They rejected what we – and in politics ‘we’ means ‘I’ – was saying, and then after careful consideration said, ‘Oh we’re going to make the recommendations of the Kelley proposal and not close any stations,” Kelley said. “And as a result, the residents are safer.”
Drasil agreed that the compromise worked.
Kelley contrasted Drasil’s performance with others, including Police Chief Robert Handy’s focus on keeping police on the street as he cut that department. And he noted that other department heads have faced challenges but didn’t level any criticism as they left.
“It has been my experience that irrespective of difficult issues to work through, professionals always leave on a magnanimous point (and) thank their employers for the opportunity to work or to serve, and it’s abundantly clear that Chief Drasil is not honoring past practice.”
Retiring rather than taking another job gives him that freedom, Drasil said.
“We’re all professionals, and they have to continue working for another city and have that professional attitude,” Drasil said Monday. But most department heads have left in the last year, he said, and he wanted people to know why.
Drasil said the majority of firefighters were supportive, but not union leaders.
“The continued resistance by the fire union’s leadership to engage in a meaningful and productive relationship with fire management has also caused unnecessary and expensive hurdles that have prevented effective management of the Fire Department,” he wrote. “Their often selfish behavior over the course of several years has been a detriment to running the department and will continue to be unless there is a change in the union leadership’s philosophy.”
It’s hard to respond to a statement that doesn’t make any specific claims, said union president Scott Moss.
“We hope he’s happy in retirement,” Moss said.
Drasil closed his two-page letter with thanks to many remaining officials at City Hall, but immediately before that he warned about possible dangers.
“Cuts to chief officers responsible for overseeing management, fire prevention, training, equipment, and safety programs cannot be made without consequences,” he wrote. “I pray these consequences do not manifest themselves in such a way as to jeopardize the safety of fire department personnel or the public.”
On that point, Moss agreed.
“Staffing levels are important to people’s safety, and we’ve lost a lot of staffing, both in administration and the rank and file,” he said. “But we’re in bankruptcy, so you make do with what you can.”