After such a shocking event — the arrest of Clearwater Fire Chief Jamie Geer on a capital sexual battery charge — City Manager Bill Horne is wise to avoid quick decisions about how to move the fire department forward.
The department has struggled to achieve stability for years, since a deadly condominium fire in 2002 exposed weaknesses in the department's training, staffing and leadership. But few events could be more destabilizing to the department than having its chief hauled off to jail by state law enforcement agents.
Geer, 56, was arrested at work Monday, shortly after handling a routine agenda item at the public City Council work session. He is accused of sexually abusing a young girl for almost nine years, since she was about 8 years old. Geer denied the accusation when he was arrested, but he remains in jail under $500,000 bail and Horne immediately fired him. City officials said they had no clue that Geer had been under investigation since August.
Geer was hired in 2004 to fix the department's shortcomings. He had a reputation as a consummate professional and a steely administrator — a combination that led Horne to select him as the best choice for chief of the troubled department after a national search. Geer was given a free hand to restructure the department and bring in his own management team.
But the unionized firefighters chaffed under Geer's direction and hostilities between firefighters and management grew. Contract negotiations between the city and union were impossibly difficult. Both Geer and Horne were reviled by the union. Accusations of improper behavior flew back and forth. Firefighters flooded the system with formal grievances against Geer and the chief lost many of them.
With Geer gone now, Horne has to figure out how to move forward. For now, the department is in capable hands. Horne has named Robert Weiss, who has been deputy chief since 2008, as interim fire chief. Weiss, 61, is a veteran of the Tampa fire department, retiring in 2003 after 25 years. He came out of retirement in 2005 to join Geer's team in Clearwater. Geer relied heavily on Weiss, and it was Weiss who often handled the detailed business of the department and communicated with other city officials.
This is a busy time for the department, with the city working on plans for a new fire station and with changes in the countywide emergency medical services looming. And hostility between the city and firefighters still lingers. Horne may be able to help heal old wounds by consulting with firefighters as he decides how to search for a new chief and what qualities are needed in the department's next leader.