updated 12/1/2006 4:54:58 PM ET 2006-12-01T21:54:58

The city’s fire chief announced his retirement Friday amid a racially charged furor involving a black firefighter who was served spaghetti mixed with dog food.

In a letter to the mayor and a separate statement, Chief William Bamattre gave no reason for his departure and did not directly address the controversy. He planned to step down Jan. 1.

The firefighter who was fed the spaghetti claimed that it was racial discrimination and that he was harassed after reporting it. But other firefighters insisted it was an ordinary firehouse prank with no racist intent. A department investigation suggested the prank was prompted by the way Pierce called himself the “Big Dog.”

Bamattre, whose predecessor left abruptly a decade ago during a similar crisis, was given charge of the 3,900-member department in the mid-1990s with a mandate to stamp out racism and sexism.

But the city controller released an audit almost a year ago that concluded discrimination, hazing and harassment persisted in the department despite a zero-tolerance policy for such behavior.

The issue blew up last month after the City Council approved a $2.7 million settlement to firefighter Tennie Pierce, who was fed the spaghetti.

The council approved the settlement on advice of the city attorney before photos surfaced showing that Pierce himself engaged in crude firehouse hazing.

The mayor vetoed the settlement, and a council majority refused to override it despite an emotional plea by Pierce, backed by black community leaders. Pierce’s lawsuit is now headed to trial.

Matt Szabo, a spokesman for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, said the mayor would hold a news conference later in the day.

Pat McOsker, president of the city’s firefighter union, said the case reflects a heavy-handed management style that has emphasized discipline over addressing problems in departmental culture.

“As of right now, morale is very low. People are pitted against one another, broken up into camps,” McOsker said. “We need a culture in the Fire Department that values subordinate employees instead of devaluing them.”

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