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St. Petersburg council chairperson wants embattled fire chief out

Brandi Gabbard said Jim Large treated her with “disrespect, bullying, and attempts at intimidation.”
 
Brandi Gabbard, a St. Petersburg City council member representing District 2, thanks council candidates for applying for the District 7 vacancy following Lisa Wheeler-Bowman’s resignation on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022, in St.Petersburg.
Brandi Gabbard, a St. Petersburg City council member representing District 2, thanks council candidates for applying for the District 7 vacancy following Lisa Wheeler-Bowman’s resignation on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022, in St.Petersburg. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
Published Aug. 3, 2023|Updated Aug. 4, 2023

City Council chairperson Brandi Gabbard joined calls for new leadership at the St. Petersburg Fire Rescue Department after anonymous comments from an employee survey accused its chief of overseeing a hostile workplace for women and minorities.

In a statement Thursday, Gabbard said in her own interactions with Fire Chief Jim Large, she has experienced “disrespect, bullying, and attempts at intimidation.” And she said she has shared her experience with Mayor Ken Welch over the past month.

She is the second council member to call for Large’s replacement. Council member Richie Floyd posted a statement online Wednesday calling for a “change in leadership.”

“I have always stood with the men and women of St Petersburg Fire and Rescue and as the Chair of City Council I feel compelled to speak in support of their cries for a change in the leadership of the department,” Gabbard’s statement read. “When I read their comments after being sent an email from a concerned citizen, I was angered and dismayed but unfortunately not surprised. My first-hand experience with Chief Large and his lack of respect for others, especially women, has been a cloud over my interactions with him from day one of being elected.

“Behind closed doors and also in public meetings, when topics have been brought forward where I have questioned his direction for the department I have always been met with disrespect, bullying, and attempts at intimidation,” the statement continued. “I could only assume that if he would engage with an elected member of our City Council in that manner, his subordinates were being met with the same or worse.”

Gabbard said she has “not been quiet” about her interactions with Large internally, but said she refrained from commenting publicly previously because the City Charter bars council members from interfering with employee relations.

In a text, Erica Riggins, a city spokesperson, referred to previous statements on how city officials are still working through the survey’s results and “determining next steps to ensure fairness for all members of our city team.”

Large’s administrative assistant sent an email to all fire department employees Thursday morning saying the chief “is out of office.” It named Assistant Fire Chief Robert Bassett as acting chief. Large did not return a phone call and text message Thursday.

Riggins said Large was not placed on administrative leave.

The employee survey included many negative comments about the atmosphere within the city’s fire department. Some accused Large of making sexist, racist and homophobic remarks and not treating Black employees with “fairness or equity.”

In 2014, a committee report from then-Mayor Rick Kriseman’s transition team called for Large’s replacement, in part for not having enough minorities in senior ranks.

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“I can no longer remain silent now that I have written confirmation that members of our Fire and Rescue Department are not being treated fairly and equitably,” Gabbard’s statement concluded. “It is time for a new day and new leadership that supports and protects those who protect us.”

Gabbard’s legislative aide emailed her statement Thursday afternoon. Gabbard did not return requests for comment.