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Fighting City Hall in uniform starts a battle

Largo's city manager says an Army reservist is trying to use her military status to fight the Clearwater-Largo Road plan.

By LORRI HELFAND
Published September 10, 2006


LARGO - The U.S. Army has nothing to do with plans to redevelop blighted areas near Clearwater-Largo Road.

But behind the scenes, the public debate over the plan has spawned its own battle after an Army reservist wore her uniform to City Hall.

More than a year ago, Sgt. 1st Class Christine Hughes, who serves as an Army Reserve career counselor, stepped to the microphone during a City Commission meeting wearing a camouflage uniform.

Hughes, who lives and owns property in the redevelopment district, railed against the Clearwater-Largo Road plan, saying she didn't want increased traffic or high-density development in her neighborhood.

"The very first time I wore it, I did it out of respect for (City Manager Steve Stanton), to let him know I understand documentation and the chain of command," said Hughes, 38, a single mother of two.

Yeah, right, Stanton said.

Hughes came in uniform to "intimidate people who are in the position of making decisions," he contends. "I think it's disrespectful to the uniform."

It's certainly not encouraged by the Army, which bans soldiers from wearing their uniforms while politicking or making public speeches.

Army spokesman Hank Minitrez declined to comment on Hughes, but said in an e-mail that "the regulation exists in order to prevent soldiers from making speeches, comments, etc., in a public forum while in uniform, because by wearing the uniform, it gives the incorrect perception that those comments or opinions are made either for or on behalf of the U.S. Army."

Since that first meeting, Hughes has shown up at a half-dozen city and county meetings in uniform, often speaking in opposition to the plan, Stanton said. Sometimes, she wore a traditional green Class A uniform and sometimes camouflage fatigues.

Hughes said she wasn't sure how many times she wore her uniform to meetings, but after the first time, it simply depended on whether she had time to change after work.

Hughes, who first joined the Army in 1986, returned to the Army Reserve in 1990. She was deployed for the Iraq war in 2003, serving as a port operator in Qatar. She returned home later that year after serving in Bahrain. She was remobilized in 2005 as a career counselor.

At a meeting last year, Stanton told Hughes he couldn't believe she was allowed to wear the uniform. She said she wore it out of respect for him.

On Aug. 1, Hughes again spoke against the plan. But this time she wore a dark pantsuit, not her uniform.

So on Aug. 18, Stanton sent Hughes a letter, thanking her for showing up in civilian attire and noting the Army's ban on wearing the uniform while making public speeches.

"It is my hope that you will not appear before the Pinellas County Planning Commission, the Board of County Commissioners or the Largo City Commission in your military uniform without prior military approval," Stanton wrote.

At the Sept. 5 City Commission meeting, Hughes called Stanton's letter "disappointing to me, and an embarrassment to you."

His letter, she said, cited the wrong chapter.

"You should stay in your lane," said Hughes, this time wearing a tan pantsuit. "Army regulations are not your lane."

The matter was researched for Stanton by Assistant City Manager Norton "Mac" Craig, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, who said he knew the answer before contacting Army officials.

"She's not supposed to be here in uniform," said Craig, who served in Vietnam. It wouldn't have been a big deal if she showed up once and explained she didn't have time to change, he said.

But Hughes questions Stanton's timing.

"I definitely believe he's trying to deter me from speaking about the Clearwater-Largo Road plan," she said.

No, Stanton said. He just doesn't want her to use military status to fight the plan, he said.

"I think the argument needs to stand on its own," he said.

[Last modified September 10, 2006, 07:12:14]


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