Fla. city council to review FD management after hostile workplace allegations
The St. Petersburg city council took the first steps towards an independent review of allegations about Fire Chief Jim Large
By Colleen Wright
Tampa Bay Times
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — A City Council committee voted unanimously Thursday to move forward with a management study of the St. Petersburg Fire Department, a day after its chief returned from administrative leave.
Members of the Budget, Finance and Taxation Committee instructed city staff to conduct one-on-one meetings with council members to discuss the scope of the study, which would be done by a third-party consultant selected through an official bidding process.
The management study will be conducted if approved by the full council in a future vote. The committee recommendation was approved on a 4-0 vote.
The idea was proposed by council member Gina Driscoll last week after members of the public who addressed them expressed mixed opinions about whether Fire Chief Jim Large should stay or go. Comments from an anonymous employee survey have accused Large of creating a hostile work environment for women and minority employees. Seven active firefighters shared what they described as inappropriate interactions and comments from Large or others in the department to the Tampa Bay Times.
Mayor Ken Welch announced Wednesday in a video message to city employees that Large would be reinstated as chief after two and a half weeks of paid administrative leave. Welch said his “final decision” follows a “careful review” that produced no “evidence of racial, homophobic or sexist comments by the chief.”
Welch did not interview one of the firefighters, Michelle Methot, who went on the record with the Times to say she was mistreated by Large after a miscarriage five years ago.
It is also unclear if Welch spoke to City Council chairperson Brandi Gabbard, who claimed she experienced “disrespect, bullying, and attempts at intimidation” from Large. Gabbard on Thursday declined to comment.
She and City Council member Richie Floyd, who voted with the committee to pursue a management evaluation of the fire department, called for a change in leadership at the department. They later walked back their comments.
Floyd said Thursday that the study was “the appropriate way for us to go about exercising our power.”
“Maybe this is the silver lining in a bad time we’ve gone through in that we realize as council we need to pay more attention to this department,” he said.
While the City Charter bars council members from directly or indirectly calling for the appointment or removal of a city employee, it authorizes the City Council to request management evaluations of city departments by external consultants annually. Assistant City Administrator Tom Greene told council members there is $125,000 already in the budget for a management study.
Driscoll called the study “a great way to show our support for the department.”
“I’m confident that the best way to do that is to engage with that neutral outside consulting firm that specializes in these kinds of things that can really take a look at what’s needed,” she said. “In light of the most recent developments, I still feel this is an important way that we can support our fire department by identifying opportunities for improvement.”
Council member Deborah Figgs-Sanders asked if the council’s management study would interfere with work being done by the mayor’s office. Welch said in his video Wednesday that the city’s incoming chief equity officer will work with the St. Petersburg NAACP branch to develop a “fire department action plan” to address a disparity in promotions.
Greene said the council’s management study would look at operations and evaluate if best practices are taking place. He said there is an employee survey embedded within all of the city’s management studies.
Council member Lisset Hanewicz joked that the last time the fire department underwent a management review, George Michael, Whitney Houston and Guns N’ Roses topped the charts. It was 1988. She also pointed at how a management study was helpful for the Stormwater, Pavement and Traffic Operations Department.
“I think it’s something that comes from an outside source. I think it’s good for the public,” she said.
Large returned to work Thursday at St. Petersburg Fire Rescue headquarters. He was welcomed with applause from a small group as he wiped away tears.
His attorney, Jay Hebert, called it “an emotional day.” He said Large had meetings to talk about diversity.
“Adversity makes better leaders,” he said.