LARGO — Deputy Chief Shelby Willis will lead the Fire Department while the city searches for a new chief.
Chief Mike Wallace announced this month he is retiring as of April 1. His decision came in the midst of a weeks-long internal city investigation into his leadership. The investigation is continuing, Largo human resources director Susan Sinz said Monday.
The next couple of weeks, Sinz said, will be a transition period when Wallace and Willis will work together for an orderly transfer.
On April 1, Willis will become interim chief while Largo conducts a search for a new chief. Applications will be accepted from both inside and outside the department, Sinz said.
Willis, 45, began working for the Largo Fire Department in October 1997 as a firefighter/paramedic. She rose to lieutenant and a division chief. In October, she was promoted to deputy chief, earning about $90,230 a year. While interim chief, she will get a 5 percent pay boost to about $94,742 a year.
Willis will be taking over during a contentious time. Not only is Wallace under investigation, but firefighter contracts are being negotiated and fire pension benefits are at issue. Willis said her goal is to make sure the department runs smoothly and to keep open communication between firefighters, the union and city government.
"All we want to do is calm the waters and move forward," Willis said.
Macho Liberti, secretary-treasurer of the Largo Professional Firefighters Association, said the union is supportive of the changes.
"We are working together with the city's administration and Chief Willis … to progress past these recent events," Liberti said. "We are optimistic of the future of Largo Fire Rescue and look forward to moving on."
Wallace, who became Largo chief in 2007, blamed his woes on a combination of factors that were mostly brought on by hard financial times, leading to stagnant salaries and layoffs in Largo city government as a whole and the Fire Department in particular.
With pension cuts likely in the near future, Wallace said firefighters' frustration boiled over and he became a target because it was wrongly perceived he did not support his firefighters.
Although employees are banned from discussing details of the investigation until it is done, Liberti said Wallace's version is an incorrect interpretation of facts.
"Contrary to opinions, we absolutely do understand the difficult times the city has faced financially with declining revenues," he said.
Three years ago, firefighters approved a contract with no raises. Firefighters, he said, are "currently back at the negotiating table looking at a minimum of one more year without a raise. We are also in pension negotiations to assist the city with better funding our pension."
Liberti added that firefighters care "deeply about the well-being of the city of Largo and its citizens."
Wallace is not the first Largo chief to complain he was targeted by his employees.
His predecessor, Jeff Bullock, was the subject of two investigations. One concerned allegations Bullock had used his position improperly to get a discount on a bed topper for his personal pickup. The other was sparked by claims from a firefighter that Bullock had mismanaged the department and mistreated employees. The city closed that investigation after finding no proof Bullock had violated Largo's discrimination and harassment policy.
When Bullock left, Karry Bell was appointed acting chief. Bell also resigned while under investigation. He said he was the victim of a flood of complaints by firefighters.
Anne Lindberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450.