Fla. mayor reinstates embattled fire chief
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch said interviews produced no direct evidence of violations by Fire Chef James Large
By Colleen Wright
Tampa Bay Times
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch announced Wednesday that he has made a “final decision” to reinstate Fire Rescue Chief James Large, who has faced accusations of creating a hostile work environment for women and minorities.
The mayor said a “careful review of the facts,” including interviews with current and former firefighters of diverse backgrounds and ranks, produced no direct evidence of “racial, homophobic or sexist comments by the chief.”
“Given the lack of any credible evidence that he violated city policy and insufficient proof or documentation of inappropriate statements being made, I have concluded my review of this matter and I am reinstating Chief Large,” Welch said in a videotaped announcement to employees.
The decision goes into effect Thursday.
Welch placed Large on administrative leave via a phone call on Aug. 5, after anonymous comments from a city survey conducted earlier this year included negative comments about the atmosphere within the fire department. Some respondents claimed that the longtime chief regularly made sexist, racist and homophobic remarks.
Large referred comment to his attorney, Jay Hebert.
“We are very pleased that the truth came out and that the mayor’s office did their due diligence to look into the allegations not only from the survey but from others who (raised allegations),” Hebert said. “We’re hopeful there’s closure on this matter.
“He’s very, very pleased to have his name and reputation cleared and moving forward, looking forward to the opportunity the next chapter presents.”
A Tampa Bay Times investigation included interviews with seven active firefighters, both men and women of different races and ranks, who described inappropriate interactions and comments from Large or others in the department. One of the firefighters, Michelle Methot, went on the record to say she was mistreated by Large after a miscarriage five years ago.
Methot shared an email with the Times from late Tuesday afternoon requesting a meeting with Welch to tell her story and dispute comments made by the fire chief.
Methot said she was never contacted by anyone at City Hall about her story. When asked how the mayor could’ve conducted a thorough investigation without speaking to Methot, spokesperson Erica Riggins said in a text, “Mayor Welch became aware of Michelle Methot during the period of review based on her extensive interviews with media.”
Methot said she did not grant interviews to any other news outlet besides the Times.
“The mayor said he thoroughly investigated everything,” she said. “He never talked to me. How do you investigate all claims when the one that was named, you didn’t talk to?”
The mayor’s announcement comes the day before a City Council committee was scheduled to discuss requesting a management study of the fire department. Budget, Finance, and Taxation Committee chairperson Copley Gerdes said the discussion could potentially include reviews of other departments.
Two City Council members, Richie Floyd and Brandi Gabbard, previously called for a change in leadership at the fire department after the city’s climate survey results were released. Gabbard said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times that in her own interactions with Large, she experienced “disrespect, bullying, and attempts at intimidation.”
Both council members walked back their comments at an Aug. 10 meeting, saying it was not their intention to violate the city’s charter. The charter bars council members from directing or requesting the appointment or removal of city employees.
Council member Ed Montanari called Large’s reinstatement “great news.”
“His experience and leadership is vitally important to the men and women that put their lives on the line every day to protect and serve our community,” he said in a text.
Welch did not respond to direct requests for an interview and Riggins declined a follow-up request for one. She said that because the “review process was handled as a personnel matter, additional information regarding interviews and private discussions are confidential.”
The Times submitted a public records request for all documents as part of Welch’s review.
The St. Petersburg branch of the NAACP also called for the termination of Large based on the employee survey and people who reached out to the branch. On Wednesday, president Esther Matthews said that her branch trusts the mayor and the process he completed. She said the NAACP branch is excited to work with the city’s incoming chief equity officer to develop a “fire department action plan” to address a disparity in promotions, which Welch mentioned in his video.
“We trust that he was intentional and in-depth in speaking to employees both past and present,” she said. “We will continue to watch and see how Chief Large moves forward.”
In the 5½-minute video to employees released Wednesday morning, Welch said he worked with members of his executive leadership team to conduct the review. He said it included “personal interviews and correspondence with fire department command staff and firefighters, a review of human resource records and exit interviews and detailed analyses of the climate survey responses.” He said he also spoke with and received comments from members of the community.
He said the interviews and records turned up no “firsthand knowledge or evidence” of inappropriate comments by the chief.
“Even those few who supported a change in leadership had no direct knowledge or evidence of such statements by Chief Large,” he said.
He said Large and his attorney refute the allegations included in the survey and in the Times report and delivered a formal response to him. The Times requested that correspondence Monday but has not received a response.
Welch also said firefighters from diverse backgrounds have come forward to testify to the professionalism of Large. He noted that Large fired an employee for showing a Black firefighter a meme with a racial slur. The mayor said that although there have been no formal substantiated complaints against Large, “there have been allegations of bullying and intimidation in recent media coverage” and he will investigate any such allegation complaint formally reported to the city.
Welch said the purpose of the employee climate survey and the reason it was set up anonymously was to “get unfiltered feedback from employees in a safe environment so that we can become a better, more equitable and inclusive organization.” He said the survey responses show a good organizational consensus on the principles of equity and diversity in the workplace.
The mayor said firefighters told him of lack of diversity in promotions within the department for African American people and women. He said that was a concern he shares and that he’s discussed with Large during his transition to the mayor’s office and after.
“Let’s focus on moving forward together,” Welch said on the video as he signed off.