NAACP chapter calls for removal of embattled Fla. fire chief
St. Petersburg Fire Chief Jim Large is accused of fostering a hostile workplace toward women and minorities
By Colleen Wright
Tampa Bay Times
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Members of the public both defended and called for the removal of St. Petersburg Fire Chief Jim Large from the job he’s had since 2006 after he was accused of fostering a hostile workplace toward women and minorities. Among his defenders were active-duty female firefighters.
The City Council also voted unanimously, with one council member absent, to request a discussion Aug. 24 on a potential management study on the St. Petersburg Fire Rescue Department.
“I want this because I feel that it’s necessary,” said council member Gina Driscoll, who proposed the idea. “I also feel that it’s a really fair way to approach all of this.”
The public’s appeals were made to St. Petersburg City Council members on Thursday, five days after Mayor Ken Welch placed Large on paid administrative leave after an employee survey produced anonymous complaints of a hostile work environment in the department. Some of those comments accused Large specifically of making sexist, racist and homophobic remarks, which he has denied.
Seven firefighters have described to the Tampa Bay Times what they consider hostile workplace experiences under Large. One went on the record to say Large mistreated her after she suffered a miscarriage. The chief, through a lawyer, has said the firefighter has misrepresented the events that transpired.
The comments for and against Large came as City Council members spent part of Thursday’s meeting recognizing fire rescue’s special event response team.
Esther Matthews, president of the St. Petersburg branch of the NAACP, called for the termination of Large. She said that based on the survey, along with other information collected from people who reached out to the branch, “it is clear that Fire Chief Large holds a disparaging stereotypical belief and that it hampers his ability to effectively lead the city’s fire department.”
She said she wrote a formal letter on Wednesday to Mayor Welch calling for Large’s termination.
Speaker Kevin Fredericks said the city’s charter was violated when City Council members Richie Floyd and Brandi Gabbard called for new leadership at the fire department. The charter states that council members, whether publicly or privately, directly or indirectly, are not allowed to direct or request the appointment or removal of any employee of the city. A violation “shall be grounds for removal from office,” the charter reads.
“The violation and punishment for the violation is clear,” Fredericks said.
City Attorney Jackie Kovilaritch declined to respond to multiple requests from the Times seeking her comment on whether the council members’ public statements violated the charter. Both Gabbard and Floyd said Thursday that it was not their intention to violate the city’s charter.
Three female firefighters spoke in support of Large. One, Capt. Lindsey Kensinger, said he supported her after she had an emergency cesarean section and her child was in the neonatal intensive care unit.
“I stand before you not only as a testament to his transformative leadership, but as an advocate for the future he envisions for the St. Petersburg Fire Rescue,” she said.
Lt. Teresa Bieber-Rehsi said she worked at the master station with Large for 18 years and that he has often asked for her opinion on social and political shifts, and she never felt it was inappropriate.
“It is my opinion and the opinion of the several senior female firefighters that are present right now that our workplace is not inhospitable to women,” she said. “We feel safe, we feel supported, and we feel heard.”
More than half of the speakers were in favor of new leadership at the fire department. Two said the call for council members’ removal is a distraction. Several cited the employee survey’s results, which found that reported incidents of inappropriate behavior by supervisors were significantly higher for the fire department and public works.
Jessica Lewis said her former partner was a firefighter, a dream job for her, but she left after a few years.
“She felt the daily pressure of sexism. She felt the daily ridicule of having to defend herself and her gender,” Lewis said. “It was not a good work environment.”
Council members ended the meeting with statements of awe for the responsibility they carry.
“I know this last 10 days or so have been very hard on everyone, and very hard on the City Council. I know it’s been very hard on our legal team,” said council member Ed Montanari. “I had a problem just sitting on the sidelines.”