He's a firefighter's kind of chief
By AMY HERDY and DAVID KARP, Times Staff Writers
TAMPA -- Firefighters were cleaning up the blackened remains of the Blue Ribbon Supermarket two years ago when Tampa Fire Rescue Chief Pete Botto wandered across the street.
During a blaze that burned a three-story building in the middle of Ybor City, Botto decided to drop in on a tattoo shop. He wanted to get his grandson's name tatooed in Old English script on his left hip.
Inside the shop, Botto didn't seem preoccupied with the blaze. He was flashing a grin and acting his usual, easy-going self.
It was quintessential Botto.
"There's a lot of kid in him still," says Assistant Fire Chief David Keene, who has known Botto for 30 years.
In a profession where people have to live together around the clock, Botto shines as the department cheerleader. He spends a lot of time socializing with the rank-and-file, plays softball with his staff and tirelessly promotes the firefighter Olympics.
But the same traits that make Botto popular with many employees have caused him trouble as the boss. Some say his laid-back management style has damaged the department's professionalism.
"The joke when Pete went into office was if you wanted to get promoted, it wasn't about your test scores," said Karl Schmitt, the president of the Hillsborough County Firefighters Union Local 2294. "It was about if you were a good softball player."
The last few months have been especially rocky for Botto, who oversees 609 employees and a $39-million budget.
Early this year, he okayed a fundraising "boot drive" by the fire department softball team that was sharply criticized by police investigators.
Botto allowed staff to raise money without requiring them to set up bank accounts, a non-profit board or a system to track the thousands of dollars that came in. Police eventually cleared the department of criminal wrongdoing.
Last month, a local nightlife magazine used a Tampa fire truck in a photo shoot with a scantily-clad model and a suggestively-posed hose. Botto, who was known in his early days as "Porno Pete" -- a nickname he detests -- didn't authorize the photo shoot. But he said afterward that it was nothing worse than a Victoria's Secret ad.
Last week, Botto acknowledged taking his family to Tennessee in a fire department van. He also used the van to take firefighters to play jai alai in Orlando. He didn't take vacation time for any of the trips.
In fact, in the last four years, Botto has only documented four days of vacation. That has helped him accumulate 444 days of vacation and sick pay, which he can cash out at retirement for at least $92,000.
When asked about his behavior, Botto has at times apologized for mistakes.
"To feel I've become an embarrassment to (the department) -- it's crushing," he says.
But he also thinks he is the target of political cutthroats.
"I get knocked off, and six or more other people get moved up," he says.
* * *
Botto, 56, has spent nearly his entire life at the Tampa fire department.
He feels so close to it that he thinks of employees as "family" and the firehouses as "home."
Born in Tampa, Botto graduated from Jefferson High School in 1964, then worked as a shipping clerk and a driver before serving two years in the Army.
He applied for a job at the fire department in 1968. He was 22, married and had one child. His career did not get off to an auspicious start.
While still on probation as a new employee, Botto's captain recommended that he be dismissed for excessive absenteeism. He wasn't fired, but his relations with superiors remained rocky.
He kept asking for leave to attend conferences and training. His supervisors kept telling him no. Botto responded by filing written grievances.
"I feel I am being discriminated against," he told his bosses in 1972.
In 1974, Botto got a seat on an advisory committee of the Civil Service Board. But the committee asked him to resign after seven months. He had missed six of the seven monthly meetings.
His behavior was puzzling given his fierce ambitions.
"I can remember 20 years ago he told me he wanted to be fire chief," says Keene, the assistant fire chief.
In the 1980s, Botto went back to school. At the age of 40, he received a bachelor's degree in industrial technical education from the University of South Florida.
The same month, Botto was promoted to district fire chief. He got good evaluations, but his supervisors still weren't thrilled. They said he was taking too much vacation time. They denied his requests for promotion.
He asked then-Mayor Sandy Freedman for help. She rebuffed him, but still remembers his technique.
"He kisses you. He pats you on the back. He is smiling. He is jolly," Freedman says. "He is kind of a good old boy."
Botto also was close to Dick Greco. His family contributed $2,000 to Greco's 1995 mayoral campaign. When Greco got elected, he appointed Botto fire chief, leapfrogging him over higher-ranking officers.
Some firefighters say Botto got the job purely on connections.
"It's classic city politics," says Schmitt of the county firefighters union. "To the victor goes the spoils."
* * *
Botto took over a department that was criticized as being too impersonal under Freedman. On the day he was named chief, he promised to bring a family atmosphere into the department. Many say he has succeeded.
"People love him. He's got charisma," said Terry Jones, deputy chief of operations.
Firefighters praise him for spending time with the troops.
"Even though he became fire chief, he is still one of us," said Al Alcala, an investigator for the Tampa fire marshal. "He didn't let the power go to his head. He remained Pete Botto."
His critics say that's the problem. They think he has failed to enforce discipline or set professional standards.
In February, Tampa police began an internal investigation of the fire department's fundraising activities. Many people, including Botto, thought the money would benefit victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. But the money was actually going to a children's burn camp.
Investigators found that Botto had given his verbal approval for firefighters on the softball team to hold a "boot drive" without any procedures or records.
"There is no accountability for what each person in the boot drive collects," the police report said. "It is all up to the integrity and honesty of each individual to turn in all that they have collected."
That's not the first time the softball team has caused problems for Botto. In 1999, retired firefighter David Fernandez pitched and hit with a .600-plus batting average for the winning Tampa Fire Rescue softball team.
The only problem was Fernandez was collecting a disability pension.
At the time, Botto said he had no opinion about Fernandez playing for the team. He didn't run the softball team or the pension board, he said.
Today, Botto is as popular as ever. At Fire Station 17 last week, firefighters greeted him like a hero.
"Best guy we've ever had, right here," said Tim Johnson, a 13-year firefighter.
Al Suarez, president of the city firefighter unions, said firefighters know Botto as the chief who once performed CPR on a fallen comrade.
"Pete will take his shirt off his back for anyone," he said.
-- Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Tamara Lush contributed to this report. Times staff writer Amy Herdy can be reached at (813) 226-3386 or email@example.com; David Karp can be reached at (813) 226-3376 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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