When John Vidovich was appointed as fire marshal in September 2014, he was given the difficult task of cleaning up the city of L.A.’s stubbornly antiquated Fire Prevention Bureau, making it more efficient and more data-driven.
Vidovich seemed like the right man for the job — well respected, well connected, close with Fire Chief Ralph M. Terrazas (both are from San Pedro).
Which made it all the more surprising when, on Aug. 24, the Los Angeles Times reported that Vidovich was stepping down, and was being reassigned to the Mayor’s Office for the remaining nine months of his career. The Times, as it is wont to do, seemed to take a bit of credit for Vidovich’s removal, having reported that fire inspectors, under Vidovich’s leadership, had been “cutting corners” in an effort to catch up on overdue inspections.
But in the last few weeks, a very different story has emerged, first relayed by activist-writer Daniel Guss on the website City Watch. According to a number of fire captains who worked under Vidovich, the fire marshal was pushed out by the powerful firefighters union, UFLAC, which was bristling at some of the changes Vidovich was trying to impose.
“I’ve never heard of a deputy chief given this type of treatment,” says Captain Matthew Gatewood, who heads the Fire Prevention Bureau’s research unit. “What he’s been able to accomplish in 18 months would take another individual an entire career. … As much as I respect my department, I think it is a tremendous loss to pull him out at this time.”
Gatewood is one of 10 captains who signed a letter protesting Vidovich’s removal. The letter, written by Captain Dan Dragotto, blames the move on a small clique of fire inspectors “who are poor performers, despise management, lack accountability, or refuse to advance with innovation and technology which ultimately provides the accountability aspect.”
During his nearly two years on the job, Vidovich had instituted a number of reforms that rankled certain inspectors. Brush inspectors, for example, were given iPads, which tracked their movements. This was, in part, to help them better do their jobs, to make them more efficient. But it also would tell management if inspectors were slacking off.
Vidovich changed overtime rules, making it harder to work on days off and accrue more hours. He also updated the bureau’s recordkeeping system.
In doing so, Vidovich’s office discovered that there were upward of 10,000 properties in the city that were overdue for inspection. And so Vidovich instituted “Operation Catch-up,” a full-scale inspection blitz that asked inspectors to work harder and more efficiently in order to clear those 10,000 properties.
Some of the inspectors revolted.
In January, according to a number of captains loyal to Vidovich, including Captain Duc Nguyen, inspectors began sending around a text message, reading: “Brothers and Sisters of UFLAC, the time has come for us to stand in solidarity in protest against the fire marshal.
“Please be sure to do accurate, thorough inspections and write as many notices as you can. Take your time to do your job!!! Do not allow them to rush you through this backlog fiasco. We will only do what we can do ... (only as fast as a banana boat)!”
The suggestion, in essence, was for inspectors to stymie Vidovich by working slowly. The text went on to warn: “Do not share this with management, supervisors or their sympathizers!!!!!”
According to Nguyen and other captains, the text message was sent by an inspector named Dave Riles, one of a number of disgruntled inspectors who would later take their complaints to the L.A. Times. (Riles didn’t respond to L.A. Weekly’s request for an interview.)
In March, the dissident inspectors got the firefighters union to issue a vote of “no confidence” against Vidovich. It’s unclear how many members showed up to the vote — estimates range between 50 and 100. The union has more than 3,000 members.
In May, Chief Terrazas gave a report to the Fire Commission, showing that in 13 months the number of industrial and commercial properties overdue for inspection had fallen from 10,013 to just 33. The numbers suggest Operation Catch-up was a resounding success.
But Riles and other inspectors told the Times they’d been ordered to “cut corners,” and that the new numbers were “fraudulent.” Battalion chief Jerome Boyd said inspectors had been “told to put blinders on,” ignoring code violations.
“Operation Catch-up is a shell game,” UFLAC president Frank Lima told the Times.
Today, Vidovich’s defenders downplay those allegations, and say that the inspectors who went to the Times were determined to sabotage Vidovich’s efforts to reform the department.
“Were errors made? Absolutely,” Gatewood says. “But it was a reasonable amount of error.” Gatewood says the rebellious inspectors were simply pissed off that they were being held accountable and being expected to do their jobs more efficiently.
Vidovich declined to comment for this story, saying only, “I’ve been advised by legal counsel not to talk to the press at this time.” A few days after Vidovich’s removal, Terrazas issued a statement praising his friend, reading in part: “Many changes have been implemented during Chief Vidovich’s tenure as our fire marshal, probably more changes than at any other time in the history of our department. With these changes came increased productivity, but in some cases it also created turmoil and resentment.”
The Times reported that Vidovich was to be reassigned to work in the Mayor’s Office, which suggests Vidovich’s removal was done with, at the very least, the tacit approval of Mayor Eric Garcetti (the assignment never actually went through, for reasons that are unclear, and his current assignment is vaguely described as working on “important technology projects for the department,” according to LAFD spokesman Peter Sanders).
In December, Vidovich received one of the mayor’s “innovation awards.” Yet in the wake of his removal, the Mayor’s Office said only, in a statement: “The Mayor’s Office supported Chief Terrazas’ decision to make a change in the Fire Inspection Bureau. By mutual agreement, Deputy Chief John Vidovich remains a Fire Department employee available to serve as liaison to the Mayor’s Office until his retirement next spring.”
“It was obviously a political thing,” says one City Hall insider. “John was doing his job, and the union wasn’t happy. It wasn’t fair, but that’s politics.”
When Garcetti first ran for mayor in 2013, he tried very hard to secure UFLAC’s endorsement. But, like most unions, the firefighters endorsed Garcetti’s opponent, Wendy Greuel, and spent at least $350,000 in support of her campaign.
Since then, the mayor seems to have patched things up with UFLAC and its president, Lima. On March 17, Lima signed a memorandum of understanding with City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana, allowing Lima to draw a full salary — $136,182.80 a year, according to the city controller’s office — without actually showing up to his job as a captain at a fire house in the San Fernando Valley.
The deal means the city must pay other firefighters to cover for Lima, likely paying them overtime. (Lima did not respond to our requests for an interview.) And although UFLAC will reimburse the city for Lima’s salary while he’s still president of the union, he’s stepping down from that position in December.
Lima is moving on to a new job, as one of 16 vice presidents of the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF), a post to which he was elected at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on Aug. 19.
Garcetti joined Lima in Vegas to celebrate. We know this, in part, from Lima’s Instagram photos, one of which shows Lima and Garcetti shooting pool (the photo was deleted, though not before several people took a screenshot of it); another shows a grinning Garcetti posing with Lima, City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson and three others.
Lima’s Instagram reveals the union boss to be an admirer of mob culture. One post is a photo of Al Capone with meme-style block lettering: “Don’t mistake my kindness for weakness. I am kind to everyone, but when someone is unkind to me, weak is not what your [sic] going to remember about me.” Another shows Scarface-era Al Pacino, lighting a cigar, with the words: “There’s 3 things you should know about me. 1. My circle is small. 2. I’m loyal to the end. 3. Never fuck me over.” The caption underneath reads, “Frank Lima bio…”
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Lima’s sweetheart deal means L.A. taxpayers will be on the hook for Lima’s salary — though Santana’s spokesperson defended the arrangement, saying in a written statement: “It is expected that the city will benefit from [Lima’s] representation on [the IAFF] board through the organization's efforts to secure additional federal funding sources. It is the city's expectation that the additional resources will defray the costs.”
But Lima’s critics say Lima’s sweetheart deal, as well as Vidovich’s removal, helped secure UFLAC’s endorsement of Mayor Garcetti as well as its money.
On Aug. 31, UFLAC voted to allocate $350,000 to its campaign war chest, to be spent on the March 2017 ballot, in defense of incumbent City Councilmen and Mayor Garcetti, who’s running for re-election.
That vote was taken one week after Vidovich was removed as fire marshal.