St. Petersburg mayor remarks on employee survey after anonymous emails

Mayor Ken Welch made a statement late Friday regarding an employee survey done earlier this year.
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch addresses the audience during the Juneteenth Celebration at the Woodson Museum, 2240 9th Ave S, on Monday, June 19, 2023 in St. Petersburg. The event included the new Black History Matters street mural presentation, speeches by city leaders, music spoken word, poetry and dance.
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch addresses the audience during the Juneteenth Celebration at the Woodson Museum, 2240 9th Ave S, on Monday, June 19, 2023 in St. Petersburg. The event included the new Black History Matters street mural presentation, speeches by city leaders, music spoken word, poetry and dance. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published July 28, 2023|Updated July 29, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Ken Welch late Friday belatedly acknowledged the results of an employee survey conducted earlier this year that included a number of negative comments about the atmosphere within the city’s fire department.

In a news release issued at 3:48 p.m. Friday, Welch said the city “recommits” to fostering a positive workplace culture. City spokesperson Erica Riggins said officials received a 240-page report on the survey, with data and recommendations from Inclusivity LLC, around the July Fourth holiday.

“As with any large employer, we received positive and negative feedback that varied across 35 departments and multiple shifts spanning a 24-hour period, 7-days a week,” Welch wrote. “From beginning to end, we applied an equity lens to the survey process.”

The release came out after an anonymous resident on July 19 emailed parts of the results to Welch, his chief of staff, Doyle Walsh, and City Council members. It largely consisted of the comment portion of the survey.

Those comments and emails also were forwarded to the Tampa Bay Times. The Times also made a public records request on Wednesday for the full survey, its results and personnel information for Fire Chief Jim Large, the target of several pointed allegations.

“Chief Large and his command staff have no regard for fairness or equity in the treatment of individuals who are Black,” said one comment from a list called “Business Case for Diversity” shared with the Times. “This is often worse for females of that group. Diversity is demonized as reverse discrimination of white males and something that lowers standards to give others a job. This is not simply (banter), it is the reality of statements made by our Fire Chief.”

Reached by phone Friday evening, Large said he was aware of the “negative email” shared and said he was preparing a response with statistics about minority hiring.

“There’s some valid concerns within the survey but the allegations that are just like, ‘He did this’ or ‘He did that,’ those are quite honestly just that. There’s no basis, there’s no fact in that,” Large said. “I have a tremendous amount of data I’d like to share. I’m happy to give the actual statistics of what we’ve done.”

In his emailed release, Welch said the city completed the survey and “recommits” to a positive workplace culture. He said 1,580 employees, or 44% of a workplace of 3,600, responded to the survey. Focus groups were held in February and March, followed by an online survey that was made available through April. The mayor urged city employees to participate in a video message published Feb. 9.

Welch ran for mayor on a platform of “inclusive progress” and repeats the mantra as a cornerstone of his administration. Riggins denied a request for an interview with Welch because she said officials are still reviewing the documents and determining next steps.

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Another comment about the fire chief on a sheet titled “Examples Inappropriate Behavior Supervisor” read: “Chief Large will sit at master fire station drinking coffee and tell sexist jokes. He has also made racist comments about specific crews liking fried chicken (the crew had 4 black people out of 5). He also made a comment about a lesbian Fire Chief and her wife, that he didn’t understand it and asked what do they call each other wife and wife or wife and husband.”

“I’ve sat at many fire stations drinking coffee. I can tell you honestly I have never made a comment about Black people liking fried chicken,” Large said. “Now have there been people that have discussed gay marriage, this would be, gosh, four or five years ago that there was a discussion.

“I don’t want to get into personal but I have a nephew and he got married and there was a discussion. He had to go to another state because Florida wasn’t accepting gay marriage at that time. That’s the only conversation I can recall.”

Large continued: “I definitely take offense that I’m racist or I’m anti-LGBTQ. The data will show you I’m not. The data will show you I’m proactive. You’ll see some comments in there that say the opposite: That we’ve lowered the standards. There’s comments both ways in the surveys. We try to have a diverse workforce that represents our community.”

Large said the survey could be taken multiple times by one person.

“When you’re in a position like mine, you have a target on your back,” he said. “I think the majority is happy. I don’t think we’ve been having a lot of problems. I’ve been advised to not talk much about it.”

In the news release, Welch shared what he characterized as “findings of interest.” Main themes from the focus groups include valuing being granted anonymity to comment candidly, a desire for more “soft skill” management training, wanting to see strengthened lines of communication between administration leadership and employees, and observing a disconnect between pay structure and performance.

Sample observations from the online survey include that middle management more closely reflects the ethnic and racial composition of the workforce as a whole, that administration and director levels are predominately nonminority and that gender identity skews to males in middle management.

“We now have good data from our employees to turn insight into action,” Welch said in his statement. “Moving forward, we will increase our leadership and job skills training, improve employee relations, boost internal communications, and develop more transparent training and promotion processes.

“As we work our way through this feedback, we are developing plans of action at both the citywide and departmental levels to address any issues raised by our employees.”