St. Petersburg Fire Chief Jim Large was placed on paid administrative leave Saturday, according to a memo from Mayor Ken Welch, who cited allegations made in an employee climate survey and other information that accused Large of fostering a workplace environment hostile to women and minorities.
“After numerous conversations and feedback received from multiple individuals, along with the allegations made and information received in the Employee Climate Survey, as well as other information received, Chief James Large is placed on Administrative Leave effective immediately,” Welch wrote in a memo addressed to his cabinet members.
Welch also said Assistant Fire Chief Robert Bassett will serve as acting fire chief. Large makes an annual salary of $210,375.
In a video shared with employees Monday, Welch said he was “most concerned with the number of employees who stated that they have observed some inappropriate behavior.”
”We must change that and we will,” he said. “Chief Large, like any employee, has the right to respond to these allegations. And he has denied all wrongdoing and any impropriety.”
Large’s leadership has been in question since an anonymous sender emailed comments from a city employee survey done earlier this year to city officials, including council members. They included accusations that Large regularly makes sexist, racist and homophobic remarks, which he has denied.
Two City Council members, Richie Floyd and Brandi Gabbard, have called for new leadership. Gabbard, chairperson of the council, said she believed the firefighters complaints because she has been met with “disrespect, bullying, and attempts at intimidation” by Large when she has questioned his direction.
Floyd said Monday that he is letting the administration work through its processes and had no additional comment. Gabbard did not return requests for comment.
A phone call to Large seeking comment was returned by attorney Jay Herbert.
“We are confident that a thorough and honest search for the truth, in addition to the testimony of many among his diverse workforce, will fully exonerate him of these claims,” he said.
Large, 68, was named fire chief in 2006. February would mark 50 years with the department. In 2014, a committee for then-Mayor Rick Kriseman’s transition team recommended removing the chief for failing to promote minorities. Two members of that committee told the Tampa Bay Times that the issues they flagged at the time are still present today and that they weren’t surprised by the survey comments.
Out of 78 officers who have supervisor duties in the fire department, only five are Black. The highest-ranked is Division Chief Fire Administrator Keith Watts, who was hired from Orange County. Comparatively, six members out of 15 police command staff at the St. Petersburg Police Department are Black.
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Kriseman called the Times on Monday to say that committee’s job was to provide information, not make recommendations. The latter would have made those committee meetings public, he said, which they were not.
Kriseman said at the time that there was a need for greater diversity among the ranks in both the police and fire departments. He credited Large with creating an emergency medical technician program at Gibbs High School to create a pipeline for recruits of color to the department.
He said he can’t recall a “single instance” when someone scheduled a time to meet with him or his city administrator to complain about Large’s behavior. He said he recalled a City Council meeting where Gabbard became upset at Large’s response to questioning.
“The man’s been chief for 17 years,” Kriseman said. “If he was a racist and misogynist ... we would know about it a whole lot sooner than this point.”