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Fox Guarding the Firehouse?

by Inside Out Sunday, Jun. 04, 2006 at 8:15 AM

Grievance filed against fire commission president for creating hostile work environment just as panel investigates allegations of harassment and discrimination on LAFD

LOS ANGELES — The city commissioner charged with investigating reports of widespread harassment, discrimination  and inappropriate behavior within the fire department has herself been accused in a formal grievance of “creating a hostile work environment” by a subordinate.

Fire Commission executive assistant Blanca Gomez-Revelle informed the board’s president, Dalila Sotelo, in writing on May 11, 2006, that she was initiating the first step of grievance proceedings against Sotelo, noting that Sotelo’s interaction had progressed to “a level of aggression” during communications with the subordinate staffer.

The investigation into inappropriate behavior in the LAFD came in response to an eye-opening January audit by Controller Laura Chick. The Fire Commission conducted a 90-day investigation and unveiled a plan for reform that focuses on human relations; leadership and communication; complaint and disciplinary process; and the recruit training academy.

An informal discussion with a supervisor is the first step in formal grievance proceedings available to members of the Engineers & Architects Association, a union which represents thousands of city employees, including Gomez-Revelle.

In question, however, is who exactly is the supervisor (and therefore final decision-maker) in this situation, which will be of critical importance if the grievance progresses past the informal discussion.

Gomez-Revelle is a commission staffer. The commission president is the focus of the grievance. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa appointed the commission president. However, if Sotelo gets her way, she herself will be the one in the cat bird’s seat.

Thus far, Sotelo has kept the matter under tight wraps, quietly looking for ways for it to be dismissed or handled as swiftly and discreetly as possible — outside the mayor’s radar.

Sotelo has gone so far in efforts to close ranks around herself in the event the matter progresses that she has had the LAFD’s organizational chart reviewed to consider whether she, as commission president, may act as supervisor — essentially becoming final decision-maker in her own case — without informing LAFD Chief William Bamattre, or the mayor.

This lack of disclosure and ironic timing and circumstance could embarrass the mayor, who reportedly hand-picked Sotelo to lead the commission.

Sotelo was a Villaraigosa campaign supporter and a member of the mayor’s transition team.  Sotelo previously served on the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument Authority.

It was during her time on the El Pueblo Commission that Sotelo first came under fire for communication and personality conflicts on a city commission.

Sources within the city say former El Pueblo Commission President Mike Gatto and Commissioner Lisa Baca-Sigala butted heads with Sotelo numerous times during her El Pueblo tenure about her communication and “difficult” personality, pertaining to the scheduling of a proposed commission retreat, Brown Act requirements and for representing the commission in an official capacity at a public event without having been requested to do so or informing other commissioners.  

While Villaraigosa has had positive things to say about Sotelo since her appointment, others say they are not surprised to hear of conflicts related to the commissioner.  

They predict it’s only a matter of time before Villaraigosa and others begin to realize what some have come to know first hand: that Sotelo shows her best side to those in a position to help her, but can turn on those who cross her or become spiteful and, as Gomez-Revelle alleges, “aggressive” when things don’t go her way — and that’s no way to keep political waters smooth  long-term.

Before Sotelo’s confirmation to the fire commission, a Highland Park journalist initiated a letter-writing campaign among local residents urging city council to reject Sotelo’s nomination, alleging that Sotelo, among other things, would go out of her way to misrepresent people and facts to suit her own purposes and that Sotelo’s intentions in offering her time to civil service were dubious at best.

The movement got little traction downtown. While Sotelo’s ambitions are undoubted and foes are increasing in number, her allies are thus far loyal.

However, incidences of long-standing, regular conflict related to Sotelo and her seeming disregard for the integrity of the grievance process over her desire to save face with elected officials, indicate flaws which may not be evident to the casual political spectator; traits which are carefully shielded from those in positions of power with whom Sotelo minds her p’s and q’s ... including the Mayor.

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