Villaraigosa aide blasts city attorney over LAFD response data
In the latest escalation of the controversy over Los Angeles Fire Department response times, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's top lawyer on Thursday blasted the city attorney's office for allegedly improperly instructing fire officials to keep some performance data secret.
In a letter to City Atty. Carmen Trutanich's office, Brian Currey, chief counsel to the mayor, unloaded a lengthy legal analysis saying the office has hobbled the release of detailed data on how quickly firefighters get to those in need in various parts of the city. Among other things, Currey said that the city attorney's office wrongly warned fire officials that they could be criminally prosecuted for disclosing information that has been routinely distributed in the past, including locations of emergencies.
Currey called on the office to reverse its opinions. And in an unusual step, he encouraged outside parties -- including the Los Angeles Times -- to sue to gain access to information being denied by the department.
"We refuse ... to let the City -- and the public -- be held hostage this way," Currey wrote.
Trutanich's chief deputy, William Carter, dismissed the legal analysis offered by the mayor's office as an amateurish effort.
“The letter was obviously written by a staffer in the mayor’s office who attempted to interpret applicable law. It was a valiant attempt to interpret the law, but they missed the mark," Carter said. "That’s why the city attorney is the lawyer for the mayor, so we don’t have staffers trying to interpret the law. It’s dangerous to have staffers interpret the law and publish these things."
Last month, The Times disclosed that fire officials for years provided the public and lawmakers with data that made it appear as though the department was getting to emergencies faster than it actually was. Revised numbers showed response times were well below widely used national standards.
After the report, Fire Chief Brian Cummings announced that the department had stopped releasing basic details about its responses to medical emergencies, including the addresses where the emergencies occur. That was a break with the department's longtime policy of releasing such data to the public, including on a popular Twitter account. Cummings cited the 1996 federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, known as HIPAA, which guards patient privacy by limiting the medical details that healthcare providers can release, as well as a preliminary opinion by the city attorney.
The chief signaled the new information restrictions in a letter to Times reporters who had requested details on emergency responses affected by a brief March 7 breakdown of the agency's dispatch system. Villaraigosa subsequently ordered Cummings to resume releasing data in the absence of a written legal opinion. But the department has continued to hold back location information on responses involving medical treatment.
Earlier, the mayor and the head of the firefighters union traded harsh words over the response time controversy. The latest exchange underscores the high stakes as political leaders, many of whom are weighing runs for other offices, try to reassure the public that a critical public safety service touching every corner of the city is performing well.
In a statement, Trutanich office's said that "the mayor proposes the budget for the Fire Department, and through his appointed fire chief, controls the deployment of staffing and resources for the department. The mayor is in control of and responsible for the effectiveness of the Fire Department and the safety of the residents it serves."
-- Kate Linthicum, Robert Lopez and Ben Welsh
Photo: Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Brian Cummings during a press conference on March 13, 2012. Credit: Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times