tampabay.com

Survey: Largo unfair to Stanton

By LORRI HELFAND and JOSE CARDENAS
Published March 3, 2007


A majority of adults in Largo and Pinellas County say the Largo City Commission was wrong to move to fire City Manager Steve Stanton this week, a St. Petersburg Times survey has found.

Most of the 601 residents surveyed also said the City Commission acted too quickly to fire Stanton on Tuesday night.

"The fact that he was a transsexual and planning to have surgery had nothing to do with his brain," said retired teacher Clifford Aldrich, 69, of Largo, who watched the meeting on television. "I saw an awful lot of intolerance and prejudice among the people in the audience, and it rubbed off on the commission."

Moreover, four out of five residents said they would accept a boss or someone they supervised who had a sex-change operation.

On Friday, Stanton said the responses did not surprise him.

"It's absolutely consistent with what I believed before I put my career on the line," he said.

The survey results stood in contrast to what Largo commissioners heard before their vote. E-mails from Largo residents ran 7-to-1 against Stanton before the vote. During a dramatic and emotional meeting Tuesday night, a more narrow majority of Largo residents also supported his firing.

Communications Center Inc. of Lakeland conducted the survey for the Times Wednesday and Thursday. The company interviewed 263 Largo residents and 338 residents elsewhere in Pinellas.

Only 25 percent of Largo residents and 20 percent of residents in other Pinellas communities said the commission did the right thing when it put Stanton on paid leave in preparation for firing him.

Asked an open-ended question on why they thought the commission did the right thing, Largo respondents who supported the firing most often said they disapproved of the sex change, thought it would disrupt the workplace and felt it was immoral, perverted or sinful.

While those saying they think it was wrong to fire Stanton are in the majority, the edge is slight - barely more than 50 percent. But opposition to the firing is much stronger among women, liberals and non-churchgoers.

Sixty-eight percent of those who said they haven't attended religious services in the past month think the firing was wrong. Among liberals, 85 percent oppose the firing, compared with 39 percent of conservatives. Six in 10 women think it was wrong, compared with four in 10 men.

Asked why they opposed the firing, nearly a third of Largo residents who felt the commission did the wrong thing said the action was discriminatory. The next most-cited reasons were that Stanton has done a good job and is being railroaded.

Pinellas residents also voiced overwhelming acceptance for transgendered people in the workplace, public or private sector.

Eighty percent say they could work for a person who has had sex-change surgery. The same number - eight in 10 - say they would agree to supervise an employee who had a sex change.

Most respondents inside and outside Largo said the City Commission should have studied the issue more before voting.

Stanton, 48, has been Largo city manager for 14 years. The special meeting to fire him was convened a week after he disclosed his plans to become a woman. He is exploring whether to ask for a public hearing to appeal his termination.

There also is support among Pinellas adults for a public official to make the kind of transition Stanton plans.

Nearly three-fourths of Pinellas adults say a public official who has a sex change has the right to stay in their job. In Largo support is slightly lower, but still solid: 68 percent.

Women and non-churchgoers are especially supportive. More than eight of 10 in each group think the official has the right to continue working.

Stanton's staunchest public supporter, Largo Mayor Pat Gerard, appears to have suffered little political damage over her backing for Stanton. Only 17 percent of Largo residents say they are less likely now to vote for her. Forty-five percent say they are more likely. Three in 10 say her stance makes no difference.

Among women, her support registers even higher. Fifty-five percent are more inclined to vote for her now compared to 30 percent of men.

"I'm glad that I'm representing the vast majority of my community and not just people who think like me," said Gerard, one of two commissioners who voted against firing Stanton.

"I would have handled it the same way anyway, but it's good to know the community is in the same place," Gerard said. "It speaks well of the future. We are the City of Progress after all."

The majority of commissioners who voted to begin the firing process said their choice had nothing to do with Stanton's choice to undergo sexual re-assignment surgery.

Commissioners Harriet Crozier and Mary Gray Black said they had been unhappy with his performance for a long time.

Crozier, who also had problems with how Stanton treated employees, said she saw a window of opportunity to remove him.

"Unless you've worked with the man behind the scenes for many years you don't know his management style," she said. "That's not the kind of city manager I would want."

Commissioner Gigi Arntzen said she didn't move to fire Stanton because he was transsexual. She did so because she lost confidence in him, she said.

"I'm extremely disappointed how he handled it and shared it with the mayor and did not share it with the other commissioners," Arntzen said.