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Top two Clearwater Fire & Rescue officials to step down

Clearwater Fire & Rescue Chief Robert Weiss will retire Nov. 11 after four years as leader.
Clearwater Fire & Rescue Chief Robert Weiss will retire Nov. 11 after four years as leader.
Published Apr. 7, 2016

CLEARWATER — Clearwater Fire & Rescue's top two administrators will step down this fall, following several years of turmoil within the department, including a string of sexual misconduct cases and an assistant chief recently charged with theft.

Chief Robert Weiss will retire Nov. 11 after four years leading the department, and Division Chief of Operations Richard Riley will be removed from his position at that time, City Manager Bill Horne confirmed.

Horne said change is needed in the fire administration but that Weiss had been planning to retire and was not pressured to leave. While he wouldn't couch Riley's departure as a dismissal, Horne said that "he's been directed to step aside from that position … I wouldn't say Riley wanted that to happen."

Riley declined to comment when reached Monday. Weiss said waiting until November to retire allows his pension to stay intact, and it will make for a smoother transition if his No. 2 left at the same time, rather than before.

"It didn't have anything to do with the rest of this that's been going on," Weiss said of his decision.

The administration shakeup comes as Fire & Rescue undergoes a series of reforms to address years of internal investigations, conflict and low morale.

Weiss said he is considering hiring an organizational psychologist to scrutinize the department, a strategy often used in the private sector to identify root problems in the culture and dynamics of a workplace.

He is now drafting changes to department policy to better define and clarify what constitutes sexual misconduct.

And the department is also preparing to install surveillance cameras in the hallways to discourage bad behavior, which appears to have disproportionately infiltrated Fire & Rescue.

Lt. William Fry and fire medic Tiffany Seabolt in February were given 30-day and 15-day unpaid suspensions, respectively, after Human Resources investigated allegations they were having an inappropriate sexual relationship on duty.

In September 2014, then-Lt. Stephen Coward resigned after admitting to having sex with two women inside Fire Station 51, along with watching pornography on his phone while on duty.

Former Fire Chief Jamie Geer was sentenced to life in prison in 2012 for sexually abusing a teenager for nearly a decade, with at least one assault made while on duty.

Most recently, Assistant Chief Ron Gemsheim resigned Feb. 29 , one week after he was charged in the theft of a 5-hour Energy drink from a 7-Eleven while on duty.

Sean Becker, president of Clearwater Fire Fighters Association, the local union, said he doesn't think there is a systematic cultural problem in the department but that employees have low morale from a lack of leadership.

"Our institutional problem has to do with morale," Becker said. "The city hasn't worked with us to ever improve morale. We asked for change within our administration and here they are putting our chiefs on a timeline, letting them stay until (November)."

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Becker thinks the dysfunction in the department began with the 2002 Dolphin Cove condominium fire, which killed two residents and injured three firefighters on Island Estates.

An independent audit conducted after the fatal fire found the department lacked basic training and coordination between firefighters and administrators.

The union and Geer, who was hired after the fire to enact change, were often embattled during the eight years he served before being convicted and sentenced in the sexual assault case.

Employees have regularly made headlines over the years for misconduct on duty, a pattern Becker says does not reflect the majority of Fire & Rescue staff.

Becker said not all the 172 fire employees represented by the union are comfortable with Weiss's proposed reforms — he said an organizational psychologist may not be a good fit to understand the dynamics of a fire house, and the union has already contested the first draft of Weiss's policy changes.

"We are starving for leadership in our department and we're just not getting it," he said. "This is the time for change. Not (November)."

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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