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Commission moves to fire Stanton

Commissioners voted 5-2, with Mayor Pat Gerard and Commissioner Rodney Woods in dissent, to place Stanton on paid leave while his departure is made final.

By LORRI HELFAND
Published February 27, 2007


Steve Stanton walks out of the commission chambers, while commissioner Mary Black, not pictured, discusses the wording on the amendment to fire him.

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    [Times photo: Jim Damaske]
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    LARGO — City commissioners ended one of the most tumultuous weeks in Largo history Tuesday night by moving to fire City Manager Steve Stanton following his disclosure that he will have a sex-change operation.

    A total of 480 people packed City Hall for a four-hour meeting during which one activist was arrested after police told her not to hand out fliers.

    After listening to scores of speakers, mostly from Largo, a majority of commissioners said they had lost confidence in Stanton’s ability to lead.

    “His brain is the same today as it was last week,” Commissioner Gay Gentry said. “He may be even able to be a better city manager. But I sense that he’s lost his standing as a leader among the employees of the city.”

    Commissioners voted 5-2, with Mayor Pat Gerard and Commissioner Rodney Woods in dissent, to place Stanton on paid leave while his departure is made final.

    “I’m going to be embarrassed if we throw this man out on the trash heap after he’s worked so hard for the city,” Gerard said before the vote. “We have a choice to make: We can go back to intolerance, or we can be the city of progress.”

    Woods chastised fellow commissioners, saying he had a hard time  accepting that they didn’t consider Stanton’s recent choice to become a woman when they decided he was unfit to lead.

    Before the vote, Stanton, 48, described the dismay of watching his reputation disintegrate in just seven days.

    Until last week, he had served 14 years as the city manager, generally to good reviews. Last fall, commissioners raised his salary nearly 9 percent to $140,234 a year.

    But on Feb. 21, the St. Petersburg Times reported that Stanton was undergoing hormone therapy in preparation for gender-reassignment surgery — a plan known only to a small circle of people, including his wife, medical team and a few top officials at City Hall.

    Stanton and his friends had written an eight-page plan to help make his decision known in June, when he said his 13-year-old son could be out of town and shielded from the publicity.

    Instead, the news came out before he told his son. Outraged residents swarmed commissioners, demanding he be ousted.

    “It’s just real painful to know that seven days ago I was a good guy and now I have no integrity, I have no trust and most painful, I have no followers,” Stanton said.

    Before the meeting, Stanton said he expected to ask for a public hearing to present his case before commissioners make a final decision.

    But he also indicated he wouldn’t sue the city.

    “In so many ways I am Largo,” Stanton told commissioners. “It’s like suing my mother.’’

    ***

    The controversy set the stage for Tuesday night’s special meeting, called by Commissioner Mary Gray Black.

    The scene outside City Hall was calm as people filed into the building before the meeting, though some said that they had witnessed heated debates earlier in the evening.

    Peggy Schaefer was one of about 60 members of the First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks who turned out for the meeting.

    “I don’t want that man in office,” she said. “I don’t think we should be paying him $150,000 a year when he’s not been truthful. We have to speak up. Of course, we don’t believe in sex changes or lesbianism. They have their rights, but we do, too.”

    People steadily streamed in, in pairs and groups, for a half-hour after the meeting started. At 6:30 p.m., there were two dozen people out front, listening and occasionally cheering at comments being made inside.

    Inside the lobby, about 100 people watched the proceedings on closed-circuit television monitors.

    That’s where Nadine Smith, the executive director of Equality Florida, a gay and lesbian advocacy group, was arrested after an officer told her not to hand out fliers.

    Charlie Deppish of Tampa said he asked Smith if he could have one of her pink sheets of paper that said “Don’t discriminate” in bold black letters.

    As Smith handed Deppish a flier, an officer asked her not to do that.

    Why, Smith said, repeating the question several times.

    Within seconds, she was pulled down a hallway through double doors and taken to the floor by four officers.

    Smith, 41, of St. Petersburg was restrained after becoming combative and refusing to calm down, police said. She was charged with resisting arrest with violence, a felony, and disturbing others’ assembly, a misdemeanor.

    ***

    Tuesday morning, Stanton said he woke up about 2 a.m., wrote in his journal for about 2 1/2 hours and went for a two-hour run.

    After that, he took his son, Travis, 13, to school and talked to him about courage.

    Stanton went to church — he wouldn’t say where — and took a long walk to prepare himself for that night’s meeting. It wasn’t easy after receiving so many angry messages from the community he has given so much passion to, he said.

    “There is such a sensationalized level of hysteria that people stop thinking and they react emotionally,’’ he said.
    In the morning, he went to City Hall for a series of meetings, but decided it wasn’t really fair to hold those meetings until the situation was behind him one way or another.

    Even though Stanton knew he might not return to work today, Stanton didn’t say goodbye to his employees before Tuesday night’s meeting.

    Stanton spoke with the mayor and kept a previously scheduled appointment with Commissioner Rodney Woods, but he said he didn’t lobby commissioners for his job.

    “They’re in extremely difficult position. These folks are my friends,” Stanton said before the meeting.

    “No matter what happens tonight they’ll each be my friends afterward.’’

    Times staff writers Rita Farlow and Jacob H. Fries and Clearwater managing editor Joe Childs contributed to this report. Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.

    [Last modified February 27, 2007, 23:26:28]


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