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Mayor places fire chief on administrative leave

Mark Parker

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Mayor Ken Welch (left) and St. Petersburg Fire Chief Jim Large at a pinning ceremony in June. Large returned from administrative leave Thursday morning Photo: St. Pete Fire Rescue, Facebook.

Update: Here is an excerpt of prepared statements by Mayor Ken Welch and a personalized video emailed to city employees that was released to the media late Monday afternoon.

“It is important to underscore our executive team members are held to the highest standards and the administration did not take this decision lightly,” Welch wrote.  “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.

“I understand there will be more questions revolving around this action, but at this time, this is a personnel matter.”

St. Petersburg Fire Chief Jim Large was placed on administrative leave Saturday following pointed allegations regarding discriminatory hiring practices and employee mistreatment within the department.

The saga began with a July 19 email from a “concerned citizen” to Mayor Ken Welch, city officials and news publications highlighting claims that Large fostered a hostile work environment for minorities and women. Welch announced that he received the results from an extensive city employee assessment and survey – and pledged a recommitment to ensuring a positive workplace culture – July 28.

An Aug. 5 memo obtained by the Catalyst and addressed to cabinet members states that Assistant Fire Chief Robert Bassett would serve as the department’s leader in Large’s absence. City Spokesperson Erica Riggins confirmed Monday morning that Welch placed Large on paid leave.

“After numerous conversations and feedback received from multiple individuals, along with the allegations made and information received in the Employee Climate Survey, as well as other information received, Chief James Large is placed on administrative leave effective immediately,” wrote Welch in the memo.

The anonymous email shared allegations that Large, 68, frequently made racist, homophobic and sexist comments. He has spent over 49 years with the department, and became fire chief in 2006.

Councilmember Copley Gerdes told the Catalyst Monday that he trusts administrators to perform their due diligence and make an informed and intentional decision.

“My concern continues to be making sure that we are supporting our firefighters, paramedics and all of our first responders,” Gerdes added. “And making sure that they have the tools necessary to be successful and keep them safe, and that we’re supporting them the best we can.”

Fire Chief Jim Large (center) with state lawmakers after receiving the 2022 Fire Chief of the Year Award in December.

Some of the alleged issues are not new. Claims of discriminatory hiring practices first surfaced in 2014 under former Mayor Rick Kriseman’s administration.

Fire Rescue officials unveiled an updated strategic plan, created with the help of 32 internal and 24 external stakeholders, to the city council in March. They listed challenges with adapting to cultural changes and a need for more equitable opportunity distribution as organizational weaknesses.

Anonymous survey comments were decidedly more direct. One stated, “Chief Large and his command staff have no regard for fairness or equity in the treatment of individuals who are Black. This is often worse for females of that group.”

Not all of the comments were negative. Another wrote, “Our organization promotes a strong brotherhood for the men and women of the fire service.”

“As with any large employer, we received positive and negative feedback that varied across 35 departments and multiple shifts spanning a 24-hour period, seven days a week,” said Welch in a subsequent prepared statement. “We now have good data from our employees to turn insight into action.”

The Organizational Culture Assessment conducted by independent consulting firm Inclusivity LLC found that over 80% of the city’s Fire Rescue team is Caucasian. More than 80% are also male.

Just 39% of departmental employees participated in the survey. Councilmember Richie Floyd called for Large’s removal in a series of Aug. 2 social media posts following the results.

“I’m grateful for Chief Large’s faithful service to our city, but nothing is more important than dignity on the job,” Floyd wrote. “It’s for this reason that I believe it’s time for a change in leadership, & our fire department employees should have the first say in who their next leader is.

“This is about the dignity and respect of our working people, and the city needs to step up and support our fire rescue employees and department. It’s clear after hearing from them that they are not being treated with the respect they deserve, and the issues go far beyond what’s been reported so far.”

Several city council members were unavailable for comment as of press time.

 

 

 

 

 

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Ryan Todd

    August 7, 2023at5:45 pm

    Contrary to Mr. Floyd’s comments the most important aspect of firefighting is one’s physical ability to perform his or her job. Emergency Response is about saving lives and not for social experiments.

  2. Avatar

    Hugh J. Hazeltine

    August 7, 2023at3:00 pm

    I watched a briefing for new city council members where it was explained that city staff do not work for or answer to city council. But rather all staff report to the mayor under our strong mayor system that was voted in, in 1993.

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