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Rocky start for fire chief

For Joe Cherry, it's been a long eight months since he first pinned on the Sacramento fire chief's badge. His department has been rocked by scandal - and the 28-year veteran doesn't mince words when he talks about the impact on him.

"It's been hell, complete hell," Cherry said. "One of the most important things to me is my reputation."

Julius "Joe" Cherry took over the 548-member Sacramento Fire Department on May 29, replacing Dennis Smith, who left after five years as chief. It was a proud day for Cherry, 50.

Barely more than a month later, however, his pride in the promotion was to be tested when he launched the largest investigation into misconduct in the department's 131-year history.

The trouble began July 3 with revelations of on-duty firefighters attending a Porn Star Costume Ball and a related allegation of sexual assault in a fire engine. The scandal grew: drinking on duty, cruising bars looking for women, giving joy rides in firetrucks.

The latest chapter came Monday, when Cherry met with reporters to reveal that four firefighters, three men and a woman, had been disciplined for engaging in group sex at Station 12 in Hollywood Park.

The chief fears this may not be the last of the transgressions to come to light.

"I keep waiting for my cell phone to ring and the other shoe to drop," Cherry said. "That is my greatest fear."

The scandals and their aftermath raise questions about whether Cherry's position as an insider strengthens his hand in dealing with the crisis - or may compromise his ability to be objective.

And Cherry definitely is an insider. After a stint in the Air Force, he joined the department in 1976 as a firefighter and worked his way up the ranks to battalion chief in 1989. Until he was promoted to deputy chief in 2003, Cherry worked directly with firefighters, sleeping and eating in firehouses and racing to calls with them.

Terese Floren monitors fire departments nationwide in her role as executive director of Women in the Fire Service Inc., a nonprofit advocacy group for female firefighters. She said Cherry has his work cut out for him.

"Clearly, a culture has grown up in the Sacramento department where certain behaviors have been quietly accepted," she said. "Someone from the inside has the advantage of knowing the culture - but he also has the disadvantage of perhaps being part of that culture.

"A chief who is an insider may have alliances and friendships that make it difficult to take a really cold approach to the problem."

Cherry responds that he will be fair and objective, even when it comes to judging longtime colleagues.

"It's a matter of personal character, which I believe I do have, to make the tough decisions with respect to friends," he said.

"I have an obligation to the community and to the employees to be fair. You have to make your decision based on what is in the best interest of the Fire Department."

Another problem for the department is public perception, said Kimberly Elsbach, a professor in the graduate school of management at the University of California, Davis. An insider can appear to the public to be part of the problem, she said, and may be slower to resolve problems than someone brought in from the outside.

"In my research on organizational scandals, when the leader has stayed on, typically things have not gotten better very quickly," she said. "And usually the leader leaves eventually, anyway."

Cherry said there are worse things than being forced out.

"It's not getting fired I fear," Cherry said. "It's not measuring up to my responsibility to the community and the firefighters."

Ultimately, Cherry's success or failure will be judged by his bosses - Sacramento City Manager Bob Thomas and the City Council. So far, they're standing behind him.

Thomas said the new chief's status as an insider doesn't trouble him; he feels it is a plus. The city manager noted that the latest report of misconduct came from within the ranks of the Fire Department, which he declared "tremendous progress."

"He's been in office about six months, and we've already seen a change in the culture of the organization," Thomas said.

"Chief Cherry has the confidence of the work force and of this office."

City Councilwoman Bonnie Pannell said the problems within the department preceded Cherry's leadership.

"I think he's told everybody he's in charge now and he's going to handle the situation his way," she said. "That's what he was hired to do."

Councilman Ray Tretheway said Cherry's test of fire has proved his capability.

"Considering the challenges he's undertaken, besides being the brand-new chief, my trust in him has actually grown stronger," Tretheway said. "His true values have really come through."

Cherry said there's no question that wrongdoing will be punished. And the chief, who holds a law degree, said he knows wrongdoing when he sees it.

"This ain't rocket science," Cherry said. "These people know what is wrong. This stuff is sensational and its newsworthy. But it isn't hard to figure out you can't have sex on duty. Period. End of quotation."

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