SEMINOLE — Applications to be the city's next fire chief are still rolling in, but one already stands out — from former Largo Fire Chief Mike Wallace who retired this year under fire.
Wallace, 57, retired April 1 after about six years on the job. He blamed his woes on low morale caused by financial difficulties that resulted in cutbacks, layoffs, increased workloads and a misperception that he didn't support his employees. But an internal investigation found that the majority of Largo's 54 fire employees disagreed with that conclusion. They blamed Wallace's leadership style.
Wallace, who served as assistant chief in Seminole, said he admires the department for its professionalism and family-oriented atmosphere. He also respects City Manager Frank Edmund.
"It's the only other fire department I would have considered applying for in Pinellas County," Wallace said.
Wallace said he believes his experience and knowledge would help him lead the department through the tough monetary times ahead that all departments are facing. Those money difficulties — higher pension costs transferred to employees and low or no raises — can cause low morale that a chief will have to handle, he said.
The Seminole job came open in August when George Bessler announced he would retire at the end of the month. Bessler took a job as training chief with the East Lake Fire Rescue Department.
Seminole has opened the job to a national search and has gotten applications from as far as Arizona. Applications will be accepted until the job is filled.
It's unclear when that might be. The city plans to whittle the list of applications and do at least one round of interviews before coming up with a short list of finalists.
Wallace would be a well-known quantity to Seminole officials. He began his career as an emergency medical technician with the Madeira Beach Fire Department and moved to the Largo department in 1986. He stayed there for the next 18 years, moving up through the ranks to division chief. He went to Seminole in 2004 to serve as assistant chief but returned to Largo three years later to take the top spot.
He took over a department that had been torn by controversy and strife. Things went well for Wallace at first. After six months on the job, Largo City Manager Mac Craig praised him for improving morale, among other things.
But Wallace proved to be a controversial figure, sparked in part by a determination to do what he saw as the right thing to do. He faced a barrage of criticism from his firefighters for making a jailhouse visit to former Clearwater fire Chief Jamie Geer, who was awaiting trial on accusations of years-long sexual abuse of a young girl. Wallace said he had not gone to see Geer to support him or offer help. Instead, he saw the visit as a humanitarian gesture from one human being to another.
Wallace was similarly controversial as head of the Pinellas County Fire Chiefs Association. The association, which holds one of the seats on the county's emergency medical services advisory committee, had directed him to vote against a proposal to change the way emergency medical services are handled in the county. Wallace disagreed and refused to vote as directed. Instead, he voted his beliefs and was bounced as head of the organization.
Meanwhile, his early success as Largo chief was eroding as criticism from his employees mounted. By spring, the internal investigation concluded that his final days in office were characterized by low morale among employees and significant leadership problems.
Anne Lindberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450.