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Investigation of Largo fire chief finds morale and leadership issues

Fire Chief Mike Wallace leaves office on Monday.

Fire Chief Mike Wallace leaves office on Monday.

LARGO — Fire Chief Mike Wallace's final days in office were defined by significant leadership problems and low department morale, according to the conclusions of an internal investigation.

The report makes no suggestions of discipline or corrective action. Wallace announced his retirement, effective Monday, in the midst of the investigation. Had he not done so, one of the options for Wallace would have been termination, said Susan Sinz, director of Largo's human resources department.

Wallace had said he believes the low morale was caused by financial hard times resulting in cutbacks, layoffs, increased workloads and a wrong perception that he did not support his employees. But Sinz, who led the investigation, found that the vast majority of the 54 fire employees interviewed disagreed with that conclusion. They blamed Wallace's leadership style.

"A common thread throughout the information provided by staff is that morale is at an all-time low," Sinz wrote in the eight-page report. "Whereas Chief Wallace has been well intentioned on the decisions he has made, there has been a fundamental and significant disconnect over the last few years that is now very evident and has resulted in a loss of faith in his leadership among the majority of district chiefs, lieutenants and the majority of those interviewed from the rank and file."

Sinz listed 10 areas in which she saw that disconnect. Among them:

• Promoting less-qualified people over senior staff members.

• Arguing publicly with firefighters and "needing to be asked to leave fire stations on more than one occasion."

• Criticizing and belittling employees to other firefighters.

• Sending emails that "have been difficult at best."

Sinz quoted an unnamed firefighter/paramedic as saying Wallace had "written some emails that have been really condescending . . . odd." One of the emails, he said, was demeaning to employees.

An unnamed lieutenant said "Emails seem self-aggrandizing, self-centered and miss the message."

• Wallace's requesting comment but reacting badly when it was not what he wanted to hear.

"The perception is that, if administration doesn't like it or agree with it, you end up getting in trouble or challenged for the input you are providing — that they asked for. This has resulted in management staff and rank and file not wanting to provide their input," Sinz wrote.

Wallace said Friday that he believes he was a victim of both the economy and a decision not to promote a senior employee. That disgruntled employee, he said, and five of his friends were the first to complain.

Wallace said the decision to promote a younger employee was supported by City Manager Mac Craig until the complaints started. Rather than supporting him, Craig chose to investigate, Wallace said.

"I don't feel betrayed. I don't feel anger. I'm not bitter," Wallace said. "But what surprised me was the lack of support by the city manager and two assistant city managers."

Wallace said he decided to retire because the investigation was becoming a "huge distraction" for the entire department and interfering with daily activities.

Wallace, 57, 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 next went to Seminole 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. Former Chief Jeff Bullock had been the subject of two investigations, one of which concluded he 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.

Karry Bell, the acting chief after Bullock departed, also resigned while under investigation. He said he was the victim of a flood of complaints by firefighters.

Things went well for Wallace at first. In his first evaluation, after six months on the job, Craig praised him for, among other things, improved morale: "Chief Wallace has provided a strong sense of esprit de corps. . . . He visits a different station every day on his way to work and spends time with each of the crews during shift change."

At the end of one year on the job, Craig wrote: "Quite a change has taken place in the past year after the arrival of Chief Wallace. His passion, experience and management skills led to a complete turnaround of his department. Department morale made an immediate return."

But by October, when Craig wrote Wallace's final evaluation, the situation had changed. Craig blamed economic hard times and layoffs for causing morale issues in the department.

Weeks later, things came to a head. Six officers complained to Craig. He scheduled meetings with others and, on Jan. 28, turned the matter over to Sinz, saying in a memo that he found "sufficient information" to start an investigation about "leadership and morale" issues in the department.

Sinz interviewed 21 lieutenants and six district chiefs. She gave their statements to Wallace who went through them line by line to refute what had been said. He also asked that Sinz interview 30 more staff members. She did so but found little difference in their statements when compared with the others.

Anne Lindberg can be reached at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

Investigation of Largo fire chief finds morale and leadership issues 03/30/13 [Last modified: Friday, March 29, 2013 5:22pm]

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