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Stanton's job may hang in balance

Largo will discuss if the manager, who is changing his sex, will stay employed.

By LORRI HELFAND
Published February 26, 2007


LARGO — Three undecided Largo city commissioners could determine the fate of City Manager Steve Stanton tonight.

Last week, Stanton’s announcement that he plans to have a sex-change operation roiled this city of 76,000, with its mobile home parks full of retirees and its feed store in the middle of downtown.

By Monday, Mayor Pat Gerard was the only member of the seven-member City Commission to say she still stands by Stanton, 48.

Three other commissioners say they intend to fire the 14-year city manager or are likely do so.

That leaves three commissioners — Gigi Arntzen, Gay Gentry and Rodney Woods — as the deciding votes. Largo’s city charter requires a vote of five out of seven city commissioners to fire the city manager.

At a special meeting called to discuss Stanton, commissioners expect to face more than 500 people.

City Hall has received more than 250 e-mails about Stanton, more than 40 percent from people who identified themselves as Largo residents. Those e-mails called for his removal by a 7-to-1 ratio.

The first 520 people to arrive will be permitted to enter City Hall, with about 100 in commission chambers and the rest in the community room, staff break room and City Hall lobby.

Extra police officers will be on duty, but Chief Lester Aradi said he’s not expecting an unruly crowd.

“This is a controversial issue, but we have faith that people will act accordingly,’’ he said.

Both Stanton supporters and opponents say they plan to pack the chambers.

Charlie Martin, senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks, said he encouraged parishioners to attend because it’s the “biggest issue facing Largo’’ in his 36-year tenure as pastor of the church, one of the largest in Pinellas County.

Stanton’s continued employment will be devastating to Largo’s reputation and future business interests, Martin said.

Moreover, he said, it would trample on the rights of religious employees to force them to call the city manager Susan, the name Stanton plans to use when he comes to work as a woman this spring.

“Do we want what’s controversial or do we want what’s best for Largo?’’ Martin said, whose church includes many members from Largo.

Brian Winfield, communications director for Equality Florida, an organization that advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights, said his group will urge members to attend the meeting as well.

The discussion of Stanton’s future employment is discriminatory because the topic only came up after Stanton announced plans for gender reassignment surgery, he said.

“As long as he continues to do the excellent job he’s doing, there isn’t any reason for his termination whatsoever,’’ Winfield said.

A large group from the Pinellas chapter of the National Organization for Women plans to come tonight as well, Winfield said.

Tonight’s meeting was called by Commissioner Mary Gray Black and could echo a bitter 2003 debate over an ordinance that would have protected gay and transgender residents and city employees.

Black was recruited to run for the commission by a leading opponent of the antidiscrimination ordinance. On Monday, she proposed placing Stanton on paid leave while the city prepares to fire him.

Black didn’t return calls for comments, but in an e-mail accompanying the proposed resolution, she said, Stanton’s situation “has caused stress, turmoil, distraction, and work disruption” to city employees.

City staff members also are “stressed by comments, questions, and jokes made during the employees’ non-working hours,’’ she said.

Vice Mayor Harriet Crozier said she supports Black’s resolution, which is the first phase of a three-step process required by the city charter to fire Stanton.

Commissioner Andy Guyette said he may vote to fire Stanton as well.

The rest of the commission is on the fence.

“We need to determine the best course of direction for the city and our employees,’’ Commissioner Gigi Arntzen said.

Commissioner Gay Gentry said she wanted to see how Stanton’s choice will affect staffers before making a decision.

“I don’t like to make my decisions in haste,’’ Gentry said.

Meanwhile, Stanton sent an e-mail to commissioners asking them for more time.

“After 17 years with the city, I feel I should be given the courtesy to show I can still do my job and be an effective manager,” wrote Stanton, who came to the city as assistant city manager in 1990 and makes $140,234 annually.

Before taking a public vote on whether he should be fired, Stanton asked commissioners to discuss the effects of a workplace transition with qualified experts, give him six months to show he can still do the job, and postpone his evaluation until August.

Several commissioners initially voiced support for Stanton’s personal decision, but their support for his continued employment waned after the city was flooded by negative e-mails.

The mayor said she won’t be swayed by e-mails, especially since many include incorrect assumptions, including that the city is funding his sex change operation.

Human Resources director Susan Sinz said the city’s health insurance policy doesn’t cover surgery, hormone treatments, electrolysis or anything else regarding the gender transition process.

“I’ll be making this decision on what I know about this person and what he’s done for the city, not on assumptions based on misinformation,’’ Gerard said.

Times staff writer Lane DeGregory contributed to this report. Lorri Helfand can be reached at (727) 445-4155 or lorri@sptimes.com.