St. Petersburg Fire Chief Jim Large is back leading the department, nearly three weeks after Mayor Ken Welch placed him on administrative leave amid an investigation into misconduct.
Anonymous allegations that Large, 68, fostered a work environment hostile to minorities and women first surfaced July 19. However, Welch said Wednesday that a “careful review of the facts” did not substantiate the myriad claims.
“Given the lack of any credible evidence that he violated city policy and insufficient proof or documentation of inappropriate statements being made, I am concluding my review of this matter and am reinstating Chief Large,” Welch said in a video to city employees.
Attorney Jay Hebert, speaking on Large’s behalf, said dozens of fire rescue personnel and staff greeted the fire chief as he returned to duty Thursday morning. Hebert said the outpouring of support was emotionally overwhelming for both men.
Hebert said Large’s priority is creating a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) committee. He also noted the 17-year fire chief recognizes that how he responds to adversity is a “true indicator of his leadership skills.”
“It’s tough when somebody accuses you of being a racist, and you don’t have a racist bone in your body,” Hebert said. “I know him personally and professionally, and not only is he a phenomenal leader, but he is an extraordinary human and a good person with a big heart.
“The people that stood in line and hugged him – I will tell you, there wasn’t a dry eye in the building.”
Welch said he and his leadership team’s investigation included personal interviews with fire rescue personnel, a review of human resource records and a detailed analysis of employee survey responses. He said conversations with department staff from diverse backgrounds and classifications failed to uncover “firsthand knowledge or evidence of racial, homophobic or sexist comments.”
“Even those few who supported a change in leadership had no direct knowledge or evidence of such statements by Chief Large,” Welch added.
However, Welch said the fire rescue’s leadership must intentionally increase efforts to promote equity. A lack of advancement opportunities among African-American women is a particular concern.
Hebert said Large, now in his 49th year with the department, met with fire rescue leadership Thursday morning to discuss forming the DEI committee. He said it would include outside sources and, potentially, a media member for transparency.
Welch noted that African Americans comprise 17% of fire rescue’s workforce, more than any other agency throughout the region. Hebert said Large realizes the department “is never going to be perfect, but it can always be better.”
“As they say, the buck stops with the chief,” Hebert said. “And it will. I just feel sorry for his family having to go through this. It’s been a tough month.”
The mayor placed Large on paid administrative leave Aug. 5. City Council members Richie Floyd and Brandi Gabbard were among those who called for a leadership change.
Some believe those public comments violated the city charter. Both stated that was not their intention and they meant to support marginalized fire rescue personnel at an Aug. 10 council meeting.
At the time, Councilmember Ed Montanari noted that the situation was “very hard on everyone” and said he found it difficult “just sitting on the sidelines.” He expressed happiness to hear of Large’s reinstatement in a text to the Catalyst Wednesday evening.
“His experience and leadership are vitally important to the men and women that put their lives on the line everyday to protect and serve our community,” Montanari said.
Welch’s announcement came the day before a city council committee’s scheduled discussion of a fire department management study. Councilmember Gina Driscoll, who declined further comment, filed the motion at the Aug. 10 council meeting.
At the time, she called it an “impartial approach” to discerning potential departmental improvements. Documents in today’s Budget, Finance and Taxation (BFT) Committee meeting agenda show the last fire rescue – and St. Petersburg Police Department – management evaluations occurred in 1988.
BRT Chair Copley Gerdes said his “concern and commitment continues to be to work for a support fire rescue personnel, police and all of our first responders and city employees.”
Welch said Large and departmental leadership would work closely with an incoming chief equity officer and the St. Petersburg NAACP to implement an action plan that promotes inclusive progress. Esther Matthews, president of the local chapter, noted that Large has failed to appoint a Black or female district chief throughout his tenure.
“I believe it is imperative that he reflects on the 17 years he has spent in that position and asks himself if he has mentored or coached any Black or female candidates seeking promotion,” Matthews said. “It is the belief of the St. Petersburg branch of the NAACP that with the appointment of the chief equity officer, it will be possible to address the issues raised in the climate survey regarding the departmental climate of the fire department, as well as other departments.”