Firefighters seek chief’s ouster in Manhattan Beach
by Mark McDermott
Firefighters from the Manhattan Beach Fire Department went public this week with a vote of no confidence in Chief Robert Espinosa and made an emotional appeal to the City Council for his removal.
Firefighters privately brought concerns about Espinosa to city leadership more than two years ago, accusing the chief of using intimidation and retaliation within the department and creating an “ongoing grave situation” leading to a “lack of critical and effective communication, delayed paramedic transport times, and wasteful spending on costly consultants, studies, and investigation,” according to a statement of no confidence made public on Monday by the Manhattan Beach Firefighters Association .
Tuesday night, four firefighters pleaded with Council to intervene. Firefighter and paramedic Rudy Mejia, the president of MBFA, wept as he told the council how saddened he was to be standing before the dais airing the department’s grievances.
“On behalf of the Manhattan Beach Firefighters Association….I am begging you in front of the community that we love and that we serve: fix this. Make us a priority,” Mejia said, urging the council to hire a new fire chief who “will get us out of this hole.”
MBFD Capt. Tom Desmond said the public is being put at risk due to Espinosa’s failure to establish an effective ambulance program and to re-negotiate mutual aid agreements with nearby cities in the wake of Hermosa Beach joining the LA County Fire Department. He said ambulance response times have been as long as 19 minutes.
“I am here to tell you that if it’s your child in respiratory arrest due to suffering an allergy attack and it takes 40 minutes to get to the hospital…it’s unacceptable,” Desmond said. “It’s unacceptable that the city has let it come to this.”
MBFD Capt. Dave Shenbaum said that Espinosa had a year in which to plan for the fact that the mutual aid agreement with Hermosa would be changing but failed to develop workable alternatives with other nearby agencies. The current mutual aid agreement, he said, now results in LA County dispatching help from Lomita, Inglewood, Lawndale, or Gardena; El Segundo and Redondo Beach are backup mutual aid responders. Just last week, Shenbaum said, a 911 came in for an unconscious person; MBFD’s lone ambulance was already at a hospital on another call, while MBFD paramedics were able to respond in a timely manner via a fire truck, the ambulance dispatched from Gardena took 19 minutes to arrive.
“The patient sent to the hospital arrived 41 minutes after initial dispatch,” Shenbaum said.
According to documents provided by MBFA, firefighters first began expressing concerns to city management about Espinosa in 2015. A consultant was brought in to mediate that year. They formally met with former city manager Mark Danaj regarding those concerns in April 2016. Another third-party consultant was brought in that June for a series of meetings but was unable to broker a resolution. Six of the seven MBFD captains met with Danaj again that November to air grievances about Espinosa, and then in February 2017 a confidential third-party leadership survey was conducted among all firefighters in which 87 percent gave Espinosa an unfavorable rating. A six-hour “badges off” meeting among MBFA, captains, and command staff followed, but again no resolution was reached. More meetings with city management and councilmembers followed, and another third party investigation was conducted; last September, Danaj asked firefighters to hold off on a no-confidence vote until January while he tried to broker peace. In October, Espinosa announced his retirement, with his resignation effective Dec. 23. Danaj and firefighters began interviewing interim chief candidates, including popular former MBFD Chief Dennis Groat. But on Dec. 15, the council placed Danaj on administrative leave. Three days later, Espinosa rescinded his resignation; Moe, who at the time was Acting City Manager, told firefighters Espinosa would remain an additional six months.
At Tuesday night’s council meeting, Moe said he stood by his decision to keep Espinosa, who has been with the department six and a half years. Moe said MBFD maintains an average response time of under five minutes and defended Espinosa’s leadership; he said the independent investigator hired by the city to look into allegations of intimidation and retaliation was only able to substantiate one such allegation.
“Every family has their disagreements, and unfortunately some have decided to air this one publicly,” Moe said. “And that’s fine. That’s their right.”
He reiterated it was his decision to keep Espinosa at MBFD’s helm given all the turnover occurring among department heads. The city has a new police chief, a new city manager, just let go of its assistant city manager, and is looking for a new finance director.
“I stand by my decision to ask him to stay on,” Moe said.
Residents at Tuesday’s meeting urged the council to back the firefighters. Richard Palmer said he came to an understanding of just how stressful firefighter and paramedics job was two years ago when his daughter died in an auto accident in another city. He said those firefighters stayed in touch with him, and he had since also gotten to know local firefighters and appreciate the job they do.
“They see these horrible events every day and then go home to their families and live with that every day,” Palmer said. “We know their daily work is so dangerous, so stressful, and so physical….Listen to your firefighters. I think we owe them, as a community, a very safe environment in which they work.”
Laurie McDermott said she was unaware of the firefighter’s situation until attending Tuesday’s meeting, but she’d experience something odd last month that now made sense — one of her kids was injured at home and when she called 911, MBFD paramedics came right away but an ambulance didn’t arrive until later.
“But it did take a while for the ambulance to show up,” she said. “I was thinking about driving [to the hospital] and I had all these firemen there. It was a crazy situation. I paid $28,000 in property taxes last year and I’m like, ‘Why isn’t there an ambulance?’”
The ambulance that finally did show up, she said, was from McCormick, which is not on contract with MBFD but helps out when called. She was billed her $1,200 for the call. “What are we doing using a private ambulance service?” she asked. “We are a very fortunate city. I am shocked.”
The city issued a statement on the NextDoor social media site yesterday reassuring residents that mutual aid agreements are in place.
“The City continues to maintain automatic/mutual aid agreements with the cities of Redondo Beach and El Segundo,” the statement said. “This has not changed. Cooperative resources are also available from neighboring agencies. This includes the County of Los Angeles, with which the City Council recently approved an automatic aid agreement. Hermosa Beach’s decision to contract with the County of Los Angeles for fire/paramedic services has resulted in an overall increase in available resources to Manhattan Beach, not a decline.”
Moe, in an interview Wednesday, said he took seriously the assertions made by firefighters regarding ambulance services and that the city would seek to improve that aspect of its fire he services immediately. He reiterated, however, that MBFD response time is still superb, and that Espinosa’s leadership is an asset to the department. He noted that with the turnover at city hall retaining the stability Espinosa represented was “of primary importance to me.” He also noted that Espinosa has been deeply involved in a radio interoperability project being implemented at the Regional Communication Center and part of the decision to keep him another six months was to utilize his institutional knowledge in completing that project, which derives from a $5 million Department of Homeland Security grant.
“There was just a confluence of issues, frankly, and I was just asking for a timeout. I was seeking some stability. ‘Hey, Bob, can you stay on an additional six months to help me navigate through this?’ Bob is leaving. He’s still retiring; it’s just a delay. I understand the disagreements. The [former] city manager over the years has tried to resolve these things, and they will be resolved, there is no question about it.”
“I still stand by my decision. He’s a good chief. He’s done a good job, as far as I’m concerned.”
Moe said the city has talked to El Segundo about an improved mutual aid agreement, and just Monday met with the MBFA regarding the search for a new chief. He said he remains intent on building consensus with the firefighters.
“Transition is in progress to build a better fire department, as well as a better city, each and every day,” Moe said. “The future is bright.”
But the present is not so bright, according to Shenbaum, who spoke on behalf of the MBFA after Tuesday’s council meeting. The council could not take action on the item because it was not agendized, but Mayor Amy Howorth suggested a study session to better understand the issues.
Shenbaum called that response disappointing. The captain, a 24-year veteran who has been awarded three Medal of Valor awards, took a temporary promotion in 2014 as a battalion chief but stepped down when he observed the chief’s leadership up close. According to the MBFA, Espinosa at one point threated the dismissal of any firefighter who jumped of the pier and performed an ocean rescue. Two of Shenbaum’s Medal of Valor rescues were performed in just that way.
“We are happy to work with Mayor Howorth in a study session that helps increase our emergency services to the community and looks at options that staff Manhattan Beach appropriately and stops relying on neighboring partners,” Shenbaum said. “But the emergency services that are being degraded are symptomatic of a bigger problem, and that’s bad leadership that effects firefighters and the public. What is most troubling is the blatant disregard of this horrible leadership. The firefighters tried to present this lack of leadership that we’ve been dealing with for years. Why would any leader want to stay in an organization in which his mere presence is holding back the organization’s growth and well-being? There is a piece of the puzzle missing to the story. Why is this problematic leader employed?”