L.A. Fire Chief Brian Cummings has been on career deathwatch for a while, and today the ax finally fell. In a press release this morning, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that Cummings would be replaced effective Nov. 1, and would officially retire in February. (Credit to the L.A. Daily News for scooping the mayor's office on its announcement.)
Cummings has taken a lot of heat over faulty reporting of response times -- which is a big deal in Garcetti's data-driven administration -- and his overall management abilities didn't impress many people at City Hall. But Cummings' dismissal could raise questions about whether Garcetti is doing enough to put African-Americans in top positions.
"It is always, at least in our mind, something we don't take lightly," said Leon Jenkins, president of the L.A. chapter of the NAACP. "We do not, as a representative group, have a significant number of African-Americans in a position of decision-making."
Garcetti's office announced that James Featherstone, head of the city's Emergency Management Department, would take over as acting chief in November. Featherstone is a former fire captain, and is also African-American.
Jenkins suggested that appointing an African-American to an interim post "may be a way of quieting the immediate impact." Jenkins said he intended to get in touch with Cummings to find out why he thought he was forced out.
Garcetti lost the black vote by a wide margin in the March 21 election, according to a Loyola Marymount University exit poll
. Though he won citywide by 8 points, he lost the African-American vote by 37 points.
Dismissing an African-American chief can be politically perilous, as Mayor James Hahn discovered when he dumped LAPD Chief Bernard Parks in 2002. That decision led to widespread protests and was a major factor in Hahn's re-election defeat. The situation with Cummings, however, bears little resemblance to that controversy.
"There will be no backlash or outcry," said Najee Ali, an African-American leader who backed Garcetti in the campaign. "Clearly Chief Cummings' lack of performance was something that played out in front of our eyes. No black leader could justify advocating to keep him on as the department head and be taken seriously."
Garcetti has appointed some African-Americans to top jobs. Former Councilwoman Jan Perry, a Garcetti supporter, was named interim general manager of the Economic Development Department. He also has appointed African-Americans to the Planning Commission, Board of Public Works and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board.
Garcetti will be talking to South L.A. residents when he holds office hours there tomorrow.
Update: Vicki Curry, a Garcetti spokeswoman, says, "Mayor Garcetti is proud that his administration and commissions reflect the vast diversity of the city of Los Angeles."
Update 2: Earl Ofari Hutchinson, the African-American author and commentator, says he is not troubled by Cummings' departure -- but would like to see Garcetti select a black deputy mayor.
"When you have a high-profile position, like deputy mayor, that has some authority and some decision-making power and a direct conduit to the mayor, that sends a signal that 'We take [diversity] seriously, and we are attuned to the needs of the African-American community,'" Hutchinson said.
Garcetti has four deputy mayor positions, of which three are already filled. The fourth position is the deputy mayor for economic development, for which Garcetti wants to hire a "transformational
" business executive.