Fire authority

An Orange County Fire Authority firefighter surveys the damage in a Santa Ana blaze. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times / January 8, 2014)

Orange County's top fire chief stepped down Tuesday amid controversy and a scathing audit that said the county fire authority suffered from poor morale and inconsistent leadership.

Orange County Fire Authority Chief Keith Richter said he will leave the department Aug. 29, to coincide with the 37th anniversary of his firefighting career. The agency’s board is expected to form an ad-hoc committee to search for a successor.

“Our agency faces challenges in the future,” said Al Murray, vice chairman of the fire authority and the mayor of Tustin. “We’ll be asking our next chief to move our agency forward and address these issues head on.”

A management audit released in May found “serious issues” within the agency regarding its accountability, discipline and leadership.

Officials and employees of the Orange County Fire Authority Employees interviewed for the audit said leadership was lacking, disciplinary actions were inconsistent and promotions often went to those who fell in line with the chief.

The report also said that bullying, harassment and retaliation are perceived to be common within the authority.

The fire agency, which serves 23 cities and unincorporated Orange County, is governed by a 25-member board of directors. It also has an executive committee that offers guidance on day-to-day operations.

Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who is on the fire authority's board of directors, had called for Richter’s resignation after the audit was released.

“He’s had a distinguished 37-year career, but it’s absolutely the right time for him to step down,” Spitzer said. “The OCFA needs a vibrant and strong leader given the very, very serious issues that are confronting the agency.”

The agency was recently in the news after an audit found that half the hazmat inspections it billed businesses for were never actually conducted.

In a recent interview with the Times, Richter said that in addition to the bad press, recent labor negotiations have negatively affected morale.

In the report compiled by Management Partners, employees also said that discipline within the agency is not timely or consistent.

“We were told that disciplinary issues are not dealt with swiftly, the degree of discipline is sometimes perceived to be inappropriate,” the report said, “and often when an individual is disciplined, the union is able to have the discipline overturned because standards have been inconsistently applied.”

Before serving as OCFA fire chief, Richter was chief of the Contra Costa Fire District for more than 10 years. He joined the Tucson Fire Department in 1977 as a firefighter.