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Largo firefighters take a step toward healing

More than a dozen Largo firefighters, many of them officers, came before the city's assembled leaders last week and vowed to do all they could to repair the image of a fire department tattered by racial insensitivity and discrimination.

They said, essentially, "We get it."

After multiple sessions of diversity and sensitivity training, lectures and threats from the city manager, lawsuits, resignations and firings _ finally, a core group of firefighters appears to have formed and claims to be ready to lead the Largo Fire Department to a new level of understanding and professionalism.

"We are here this evening to take the first step to restore your faith in us," announced fire Lt. Ken Mantay, who acted as the spokesman for the group that showed up at last week's City Commission meeting. "We understand how important these policies are."

Mantay is the same officer who last week authored a long letter to the editor of the Times concerning the continued revelations about racial slurs and harassment in the fire department.

"We are struggling with a past rash of poor judgment. This is by no means an excuse," Mantay wrote in the letter. ". . . We have to lead . . . from the top down. We each share the burden of the mistakes, as we also share the desire to move forward and grow beyond this. We ask humbly to be allowed to prove again that your faith in us is not ill-placed."

It is not clear whether the firefighters came forward last week because they finally understand and accept the city's new zero-tolerance policy on harassment in the workplace, or because they felt the need to stick up for fire Chief Caroll Williams as his capacity to lead the department was being challenged.

Perhaps both were motivations for the firefighters gathered in the commission chambers. Regardless, it was, to borrow Mantay's words, a good "first step" that a group of strong, articulate leaders in the department came forward, took responsibility for past problems, and said they would do the job that needed to be done. And they made that vow not just to their ultimate boss, City Manager Steven Stanton, and to the City Commission, but also to all the residents of Largo who watched last week's meeting on television and heard those words.

The job will be difficult. If they do it well, they may be exceedingly unpopular to some of those who work in the fire department and who are not so ready to mend their ways. It will not be enough for this leadership group merely to lead by example, though that is important. It will also be necessary for these leaders to root out the recalcitrant few among their fellow firefighters, report their violations of policy, and help to ensure that there are consequences for misbehavior.

Are they willing to go that far? Will the fire union permit that? The union has the power to be a force for change or a drag on the department's improvement. Which will it be?

After Mantay's presentation Tuesday night, city commissioners took turns praising the department and its record. One commissioner, Pat Gerard, contended that the city is "better than the press we've been getting."

The skills of the city's firefighters have not been questioned. Firefighters do their job and from all appearances do it well. The headlines and the public debate have been about the department's internal culture, which is sick and needs treatment. This is a department that left minority employees feeling emotionally battered; a place where racial and ethnic slurs and discrimination against minorities were accepted and just a part of life at the firehouse.

The fire department is not the only department in Largo city government that has racism and discrimination against minorities. We hope those departments have learned from watching the fire department's public spasm of pain and will get the help they need to clean up their own houses.