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Fire chief fallout reaches city council chambers

Mark Parker

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Mayor Ken Welch (front, center) with St. Petersburg Fire Chief Jim Large (fourth from left), City Councilmember Gina Driscoll (fourth from right) and Councilmember Ed Montanari (third from right) at a recent cadet graduation ceremony. Photo: City of St. Petersburg.

The St. Petersburg City Council heard from several public speakers advocating for and against the dismissal of Fire Chief Jim Large – and in some cases, two members of the council itself.

Most speakers, including the local NAACP president, called for Large’s dismissal. The three people who spoke in support of a fire chief approaching his 50th anniversary with the department were active-duty female firefighters.

Large, 68, became fire chief in 2006. Thursday afternoon’s meeting followed numerous allegations that he fostered a workplace hostile to women and minorities.

“I believe that based on the city’s Employee Climate survey, along with other information that we have collected through those that have reached out to the branch, it is clear that Fire Chief Large holds a disparaging, stereotypical belief,” said Esther Matthews, president of St. Petersburg’s NAACP chapter. “And that it hampers his ability to effectively lead the city’s fire department.”

After the public forum, which preceded city officials awarding Fire Rescue’s Special Event Response Team, the council unanimously voted to discuss a departmental management study at an Aug. 24 committee meeting. Councilmember Gina Driscoll filed the motion after expressing frustration with the council’s inability to participate in the process.

Unlike public statements from two council members that some believe violated the city charter, Driscoll said the management study was “in our lane.” She called it a “necessary” and “fair” approach.

“I want the members of St. Pete Fire Rescue to know that this is not because I am leaning one way or another regarding judgment on anything that happened,” Driscoll added. “It’s simply my way of looking at an impartial approach to finding out what improvements need to be made.

“It just sounds like it’s time, and it can do nothing but help the entire department.”

Thursday afternoon’s discussion came five days after Mayor Ken Welch placed Large on paid administrative leave. Welch noted that Large vehemently denied the allegations in an Aug. 7 personalized video to city employees.

Those included claims of discriminatory hiring practices and that Large often made sexist, racist and homophobic remarks. The Organizational Culture Assessment, conducted by independent consulting firm Inclusivity LLC in the spring and released in July, validated some of those claims.

In a prepared statement, Welch said “The City will continue its assessment and evaluation of all circumstances while weighing the facts and information received via the employee Climate Survey and thereafter … this is a personnel matter.”

Several speakers at the meeting cited the assessment’s findings and anonymous survey feedback as grounds for termination. However, Lt. Teresa Bieber-Rehsi said she frequently interacted with Large through her 18-year tenure at the master station and never felt their discussions “on very controversial subjects” were inappropriate.

“The fire department that I know is one of opportunity and a level playing field for those who respect procedure and those who put in the work,” Bieber-Rehsi said. “It is my opinion, and the opinion of several firefighters that are present right now, that our workplace is not inhospitable to women.”

Esther Matthews, president of the St. Petersburg NAACP chapter, said her organization received additional information regarding the fire department’s work environment. Screengrab.

Potential charter violations

Resident Kevin Fredericks said Councilmember Richie Floyd and Chair Brandi Gabbard violated the city charter when they publicly called for a leadership change. The charter prohibits the council from “publicly or privately, directly or indirectly, individually or collectively” directing or requesting the appointment or removal of any city employee.

The charter adds that any violation “shall be grounds for removal.” While resident Kevin Fredericks called for Floyd and Gabbard’s dismissal, other speakers said that was a distraction.

“I know the last 10 days or so have been very hard on everyone …,” said Councilmember Ed Montanari. “I had a problem just sitting on the sidelines.”

City Attorney Jackie Kovilaritch could not be reached for comment as of press time. The Catalyst also filed a public records request regarding any relevant documentation.

Gabbard stressed that she never meant to violate the city charter with her statements to the Tampa Bay Times. She said her intention was to support St. Pete Fire Rescue personnel, and in hindsight, understands that “those comments could have been misconstrued to be a blatant disregard for our charter.”

“I respect the mayor’s process and the process of any investigations that may be occurring or will continue to occur in the future,” Gabbard added.

Floyd, who posted his thoughts on social media, echoed those sentiments and expressed his “utmost respect” for the city charter. He also credited Driscoll for taking a thoughtful approach to the situation.

Several council members stated their appreciation for Gabbard and Floyd’s comments. Councilmember Copley Gerdes called the discussion his proudest moment on the dais.

“I’m very proud to serve this city, and I’m very proud to serve it with some of the best damn people that I know,” Gerdes said.

 

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8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Avatar

    S. Rose Smith-Hayes

    August 15, 2023at5:46 pm

    You all act as though Racism and Sexism and Homophobic attitudes do not exist in the Fire Department. Those attitudes exist in All departments. This was just outed for this gentleman. I have friends that worked for the Fire Department and the stories they told made the hair curl on your arms. My issue is that no one is willing to come forward and face the Chief with these accusations. Perhaps his accusers can speak to a neutral party about the accusations if they fear for their jobs.The accusations need to be investigated, however 50 years??? How long has this been going on???? The NAACP President has a right to be involved.

  2. Avatar

    David Skidmore

    August 13, 2023at8:03 pm

    49 yrs and first anonymous complaint and city council people want to can? yea makes a lot of sense, how about the two council persons violating city charter. How about someone with some backbone to put away this nonsense. I can only hope

  3. Avatar

    Christoph

    August 12, 2023at6:15 pm

    If you’re going to hold a person accountable for an anonymous survey, what does accountability look like for council members who violate the city charter. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to” doesn’t hold up legally as far as I know. BTW, when is the last time the NAACP recommended that a non person of color keep a job?

  4. Avatar

    Donna Kostreva

    August 12, 2023at4:48 pm

    Fire fighters are the highest order of humanity rushing where no one wants to go to save lives and property. The job is strenuous. The hours are long. The pay is small compared to the danger. Chief Large has done this service to our community since 2006. Now along comes an anonymous survey by a questionable group propelling unsubstantiated comments to the forefront. There already is a system in place to deal with unhappy workers. I smell anti white bias! The public doesn’t care about the color or sex of the lifesaving firefighters! We want the most qualified !

  5. Avatar

    Ryan Todd

    August 12, 2023at3:40 pm

    The NAACP is making the recommendation and has no experience in emergency response in order to recommend the firing of our Fire Chief. Who on earth chose the company Inclusivity LLC to conduct a study? The inherent bias is evident in their name. To top it off two city council members violate the city charter in order to dump their socially progressive politics into our city’s emergency management sector.

    Please punish these council members accordingly and remove them from their seats. I do no believe they can lead our city in good faith following their public comments at city hall and on social media.

  6. Avatar

    Mike

    August 11, 2023at7:22 pm

    Innocent until proven guilty? Constitutional right to face your accuser? Unknown fraction of accusations within a pool of potentially thousands of polling results? City council violating their own charter? Sending an association dedicated to the advancement of colored people to solve racism?

    Every day I have less faith in this town and our country. We didn’t even know how good we had it and now we enthusiastically give it away every day. Piece by piece. We deserve this mess.

  7. Avatar

    steve sullivan

    August 11, 2023at3:44 pm

    Really, Ryan? you single out the NAACP. This issue existed in 2014 and just because one persons experience is different from anothers doesn’t mean the grievance didn’t take place.

  8. Avatar

    Ryan Todd

    August 11, 2023at3:26 pm

    The NAACP knows jack about emergency response and what it takes to fight fire. Let the experts like our Fire Chief lead and get out of his way.

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