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Largo fire chief under investigation

LARGO — City officials have confirmed that Largo fire Chief Mike Wallace is the subject of an internal investigation.

The confirmation affirmed weeks of rumors that Wallace's job is in jeopardy, but the reason is not clear.

Wallace, city officials and Largo fire union representatives declined to comment until the investigation is finished. It is unknown when that will happen, but Susan Sinz, the city's director of human resources and the person in charge of the probe, said it could be sometime this week.

Wallace, 57, began his career in 1982 as an emergency medical technician with the Madeira Beach Fire Department. Four years later, he moved to the Largo Fire Department, where he has served as lieutenant, district chief and division chief.

Wallace left Largo in 2004 to go to Seminole, where he was assistant chief until he returned to Largo in October 2007 to head the department. He earns about $107,494 a year.

When he returned to Largo, Wallace stepped into a department that was in turmoil.

Fire Chief Jeff Bullock had retired five months before in the wake of two investigations into his conduct. One review concluded Bullock had used his position improperly to get a discount on a bed topper for his personal pickup. The other investigation 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.

Three months after Bullock's retirement, acting Chief Karry Bell, a 29-year veteran, resigned after city officials said they would terminate him for refusing to admit he used the words "Eat me" during a heated discussion a month earlier. Bell said his words were actually "grieve me" — a dare to file a formal grievance under union rules. Bell said he had been the victim of a flood of complaints by firefighters.

Wallace's tenure also has been turbulent at times.

Largo took over the Belleair and Belleair Bluffs fire departments, moves unpopular with some firefighters and some residents.

A bad economy and plunging property values forced city budget cuts and layoffs in the fire and police departments.

The dismal financial situation also took its toll at the county level. The county, which distributes funds for emergency medical services to Pinellas' 18 fire departments, wanted to cut costs. It also proposed other changes to the EMS system that have been largely opposed by fire chiefs and firefighters.

Wallace was the most outspoken exception to that, saying he supported many of the county's initiatives. He was bounced from his position as head of the Pinellas County Fire Chiefs Association and removed from the organization's seat on the EMS Advisory Council for voting in favor of one proposal rather than casting his vote against, as the association wanted.

He also faced a barrage of criticism 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 was forced to write an email to his firefighters explaining why he had gone to see Geer. In the email, Wallace explained that he did not support Geer nor offer him help. He saw the visit as a humanitarian gesture: "From the perspective of a human being he deserved that much. I am sure that each of you are eager to judge what should happen to him. I have my own feelings about what is deserved. That does not negate the moral and ethical responsibilities we have to other human beings. We are not him. We are better."

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

Largo fire chief under investigation 02/16/13 [Last modified: Friday, February 15, 2013 5:32pm]

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