- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 14, 2000

D.C. Council member Harold Brazil, the legislature's point man on public safety, has not yet scheduled a confirmation hearing on the mayor's nominee for fire chief, Ronnie Few. Mayor Williams announced the appointment on June 3. A hearing might not be held until September because Mr. Brazil is running for re-election, and the mayor is campaigning on his behalf. Consequently, Mr. Brazil and his colleagues, several of whom are also seeking re-election, have substantial time to compile a necessarily tough line of questioning.

Chief Few, who since 1997 has run the Augusta-Richmond County, Ga., fire department, is under investigation by a specially empaneled grand jury for giving small raises of 1.25 percent to the rank and file while administrators received larger raises ranging from 2.5 percent to 10 percent. He also is being questioned regarding firefighters' attendance at conferences held by the Southeastern Region of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the Georgia Association of Fire Chiefs and Firefighters and the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters. The grand jurors are particularly interested in the facts surrounding the black firefighters' conference, because of allegations that Augusta-Richmond's black firefighters were organizing union activity while on duty.

Union influence ought to be under scrutiny in the District, too. For several years, the union has tried to convince D.C. leaders to mandate a fifth firefighter be assigned to ladder trucks. In fact, one interim chief, Tom Tippett, a former president of the D.C. Firefighters Union, abruptly resigned this spring when officials denied that request and another proposal that would have hired additional battalion aides.

Both the current president of the D.C. Firefighters Union, Ray Sneed, and the president of the union that represents paramedics and emergency medical technicians, Al Rowell, support Chief Few, who enjoyed union support in Augusta-Richmond. Sgt. Sneed has said Chief Few "will be able to overcome" the difference between managing Augusta-Richmond's comparatively small department (320 employees and $14 million budget) vs. the District's (2,000 employees and $111 million budget). Also, Augusta-Richmond's emergency medical services are handled by a private company. The District's are incorporated within the Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services. Mr. Rowell of the medical services union, meanwhile, said he is confident Chief Few will spend more money on medical services. "I think he'll do the right thing," Mr. Rowell said, adding that EMS workers have felt like "stepchildren" to the fire department for years.

An internal investigation in Augusta-Richmond cleared Chief Few of any wrongdoing regarding the raises, but the special grand jury, the second involved in the probe, continues its work and has no set time-frame. Essentially that means Chief Few could take over as the city's new fire chief only to be indicted for criminal wrongdoing afterward. That would prove troublesome for the District, which has had two interim chiefs since Don Edwards resigned last winter because he maintained a full-time residence in Maryland and a part-time residence in the District. (The unions and others complained, at the time, that living in Maryland prohibited Mr. Edwards from experiencing the full flavor of the nation's capital.)

Chief Few, expected to assume his new post July 10, has said he will examine D.C. operations and "make sure things go right." He appeared before the Augusta-Richmond County grand jury last week and has said the raises in question were justified, and the probe will eventually find no wrongdoing. There is no way for D.C. officials to predict or control that outcome. The council can, though, determine whether Ronnie Few is the right man for the D.C. job by paying close attention to the facts. In other words, by raising pertinent issues and grilling him accordingly.

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