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.”
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.