On Aug. 7, St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch put St. Pete Fire Rescue Chief James Large on “paid administrative leave.” He took this action after receiving complaints about Large’s behavior and attitudes from anonymous City employee surveys.
Large served as St. Pete’s Fire Chief since 2006. He started with the department in 1974.
“St. Petersburg Fire Chief James Large has been placed on paid administrative leave effective immediately. I understand there will be more questions revolving around this action, but at this time, this is a personnel matter,” Welch said in a video statement.
Welch said that Large denies wrongdoings. The personnel matter remains under investigation. Large did not comment on getting placed on leave. The Gabber Newspaper could not reach him for comment.
“It is important to underscore our executive team members are held to the highest standards and the administration did not take this decision lightly,” the mayor’s statement continued.
The City’s move came after the survey. Approximately 1,500 of 3,600 of City staff responded about the workplace environment.
Welch explained the City continues to evaluate the information and the facts received.
The surveys brought into question Large and the fire department’s attitudes toward diversity and inclusion efforts.
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St. Petersburg Fire Rescue
“St. Petersburg Fire Rescue has always and will continue to deliver outstanding fire and EMS services to protect the health and wellbeing of our community,” Welch said. “Every day, we are thankful to our hardworking team members for their willingness to serve and unwavering commitment to duty and integrity.”
According to Welch, Assistant Fire Chief Robert Bassett currently serves as interim acting fire chief.
Social Media Reactions
Some of Large’s supporters took to social media. They defended the chief’s nearly five decades of service.
“The Chief Jim Large that I have come to know over the last ten years, has shown to be a leader of professionalism, kindness, and integrity,” said Hope Jagodzinski. The SPFR firefighter and EMT posted this on Facebook. “As a female, I have never felt discriminated against and feel completely confident that if I did have to go to Chief Large with an issue, I would be treated with respect and dignity. I know this because that is how I have been treated since my first encounter with him.”
She cited Large’s support for her after a breast cancer diagnosis in 2015.
“The amount of support, love, empathy, care, and compassion, shown to be by my family within SPFR is indescribable. One of my biggest supporters was Chief Large. When he found out about my diagnosis, he actually choked up and told me that I have the entire department’s support,” Jagodzinki posted Aug. 10.
The Florida Fire Chiefs Association honored Large as the 2022 Florida Fire Chief of the Year.
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Calls for Termination
Nonetheless, the NAACP’s St. Petersburg Branch wants Large fired.
President of the NAACP’s St. Petersburg Branch Esther Matthews wrote a letter to Welch on Aug. 9.
“In light of the feedback, we received from the City’s Employee Climate Survey, as well as other information that we have gathered, it appears to me that Fire Chief Large subscribes to racial stereotypes and beliefs, which ultimately hamper his ability to lead the City’s Fire Department effectively,” said Matthews.
“As a City, St. Petersburg deserves to have leaders who do not hold a disdainful attitude towards its employees and residents, or harbor racist views towards them,” the letter reads. “There is no way to justify paying the salary of the City’s Fire Chief who holds such views about a large segment of the City’s workforce and the population of the City.”
Overall, the letter calls for his termination as soon as possible.
St. Pete Employees
St. Pete City Councilmember Richie Floyd and Council President Brandi Gabbard agree: They both want the chief out.
“Our fire rescue employees are crucial to our City. It’s clear after hearing from them that they are not being treated with the respect they deserve, and the issues go beyond what’s been reported so far,” Floyd said in a social media statement Aug. 2.
Floyd acknowledged Large’s loyalty. He also acknowledged Large’s service to the City. However, he added, “nothing is more important than dignity on the job.”
“It’s for this reason that I believe it’s time for a change in leadership, and our fire department employees should have the first say in who their next leader is,” Floyd wrote in his statement.