- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 2, 2002

AUGUSTA, Ga. Fire Chief Ronnie Few repeatedly violated regulations on promotions when he led fire departments in Georgia, a habit that endured in his tenure at the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department.

Over the past decade, Chief Few frequently ignored policies and procedures when he headed fire departments in East Point and Augusta by promoting less senior or unqualified personnel, public records show.

Since taking charge of the D.C. fire department in 2000, Chief Few authorized eight "merit" promotions that had to be rescinded because the firefighters did not qualify for higher rank through promotional testing. A 1972 D.C. law forbids merit promotions for city workers without regard to time in service, education and other qualifications.

Lt. Ray Sneed, president of the D.C. Fire Fighters Association, Local 36, said that since October, the chief has tried to promote eight firefighters to the ranks of sergeant and captain. "Those have been rescinded," he said. "He just went in and handpicked them and [illegally] promoted them."

Last week, the D.C. fire department held its first promotional examination in Chief Few's 22-month tenure.

In a tense D.C. Council hearing yesterday, Mayor Anthony A. Williams appeared reluctant to answer direct questions about Chief Few and his employment status, in the wake of a report Tuesday in The Washington Times saying the chief was expected to resign as early as this week.

Council members some of whom had called for Chief Few's resignation pressed the mayor to divulge who was running the city fire department. "As of right now, as we speak today, the chief is the chief," Mr. Williams said.

Chief Few declined to comment for this report, said fire department spokeswoman Lisa Bass.

City workers in East Point and Augusta said Chief Few promoted his cronies over more senior or qualified personnel. "Ronnie Few wants to surround himself with his people," said an Augusta official who asked not to be identified.

The Times first reported on March 13 that three Few aides lied in their resumes about having held the rank of chief in their previous jobs at the East Point Fire Department in the 1990s. Chief Few said he had promoted the three firefighters all friends of his to the rank of chief.

But federal court records, city government documents and personnel files obtained by The Times showed that none of the aides ever held that rank at East Point. D.C. Deputy Fire Chief Bruce A. Cowan was assigned as "fire marshal" in 1993 and promoted to lieutenant in 1998. Assistant Chief Gary L. Garland was assigned as "training officer" in 1993 and promoted to lieutenant in 1998. Assistant Chief Marcus R. Anderson was assigned as "EMS coordinator" and promoted to sergeant in 1998.

Chief Garland's resume said he was "Training Chief" at East Point; Chief Anderson's said he was "Chief Emergency Medical Services Division" and Chief Cowan's said he was "Chief Fire Marshal."

City Administrator John Koskinen said his six-week investigation into the resume scandal determined that the three aides did not mislead the District about having been chiefs at East Point.

A city government source familiar with the investigation said the aides believed they had been promoted to chief, an unnecessarily confusing situation created by Chief Few.

As East Point's fire chief, Chief Few was subject to a federal court order that required promotional testing for all positions, including those of training officer, fire marshal and emergency medical services (EMS) coordinator, which the court order stipulated were "auxiliary" positions that held no rank.

The court order, called the Bledsoe Decree, resulted from a class-action discrimination lawsuit filed by nine East Point firefighters in 1985.

When Chief Few left East Point in 1997, he had not held a promotional examination for several years and left 18 vacancies in the ranks between sergeant and battalion chief in a department of about 100 firefighters.

East Point documents showed that Chief Few tried to reorganize the department in 1997 to waive the time-in-service and educational requirements for promotion a violation of the Bledsoe Decree.

He also tried to create "assistant chief" positions that would allow any firefighter with 12 years' experience who had held the rank of lieutenant, captain or battalion chief, or the posts of training officer or fire marshal, to apply another violation of Bledsoe.

"It may very well be argued that the reorganization is outside the scope of the Bledsoe case," Charles S. Johnson, the private attorney who represented East Point in the Bledsoe case, said in a Feb. 4, 1997, letter to Chief Few and William McClure, acting city manager of East Point.

In his letter, Mr. Johnson noted that the fire department had not held promotional examinations. "We are both aware that the reason for the vacancies is the slow response by fire management to promote according to the consent decree," the letter states.

In a Feb. 12, 1997, letter to Mr. Johnson, East Point Personnel Director John F. Marriner recommended that the department not be reorganized until the promotions had been completed. Mr. Marriner said only firefighters with proper rank and command experience should be considered for the assistant chief positions.

Chief Few's proposed reorganization would have allowed Chiefs Garland and Cowan, who were sergeants at the time, to leapfrog to higher ranks, which Mr. Marriner noted in a March 11, 1997, letter to City Manager Fred H. Hays.

"Both of the modifications of the Bledsoe case by Chief Few would seem to benefit his office staff of Cowan and Garland who have not continued their education toward career advancement nor served at each rank to gain experience," Mr. Marriner said in the letter. "Only performance on-the-job can prepare one for a command position, I would assume."

East Point City Attorney David Couch said last month that, although the city no longer is subject to the Bledsoe Decree, the fire department has not been reorganized and promotions continue to follow the requirements of the federal court order.

When Chief Few took charge of the Augusta/Richmond County Fire Department in April 1997, one of his first acts was to create two assistant chief positions, which he filled with two captains. He also promoted a lieutenant to the rank of battalion chief without proper authority.

At first, Chief Few denied he had promoted Lt. Catherine Walker when County Administrator Randy Oliver asked about the promotion in November 1997. "This is strictly a rumor that has no validity at all," the chief said in a Nov. 13, 1997, letter to Mr. Oliver.

Around February 1998, County Commissioner Ulmer Bridges complained about the unauthorized promotion to the personnel department. Brenda Byrd-Pelaez, director of the Office of Equal Employment Opportunity, found that Lt. Walker had been told by Chief Few to wear battalion chief emblems.

"Chief Few explains he gave the cross and bugles [battalion chief emblems] to Lt. Walker because in most fire departments this position is held by a ranking officer and 'he did not want her to feel bad among her peers.'" Mrs. Byrd-Pelaez said in a Feb. 6, 1998, letter to Mr. Bridges.

"Rank should not be given out to appease someone's feelings among their peers," she said in the letter. "However, the fire chief in his discretion has deemed it proper for her to wear this rank."

A special grand jury in Richmond County, Ga., has been investigating Chief Few for two years on accusations of making illegal promotions, misusing county funds and illegally increasing the salaries of his command staff. The grand jury has seized personnel and financial records from the Augusta/Richmond County Fire Department.

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