350 rally to protest city manager's ouster

The Largo official, fired last week over plans for a sex change, says the support is overwhelming.

Published March 7, 2007

LARGO - They stood 350 strong in the grass outside City Hall on Tuesday morning, united by faith.

They held signs, saying "Justice," "Compassion" and "Love," as well as these:

Some Baptists need their hearts examined.

Jesus wasn't the Terminator.'

We don't tolerate diversity, we celebrate it!

They were there to support Steve Stanton, who was fired from his job as city manager by the City Commission after disclosing that he is going to undergo gender-reassignment surgery.

The 30-minute rally drew more than a dozen clerics from churches and synagogues around the Tampa Bay area.

"We believe that Mr. Stanton is a human being worthy of being treated with respect, compassion and dignity," said the Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, pastor of Unitarian Universalists of Clearwater.

"We likewise urge the citizens of Largo to hold their elected leaders to a high standard of justice and compassion in human relations. Therefore, we ask the city of Largo to hold true its self-articulated vision of being a City of Progress."

Stanton, 48, became the center of Largo's biggest controversy in years after disclosing on Feb. 21 that he plans to have a sex-change operation and begin going by the name Susan.

On Feb. 27, the City Commission voted 5-2 to put Stanton on administrative leave in preparation for dismissing him.

Stanton said he may appeal that vote by requesting a public hearing before the commission. He has until the close of business Thursday to make that request.

Stanton did not attend the demonstration but said, "It's overwhelming."

"City managers typically don't see this side of the community," he said.

Before the move to dismiss him, "a process that was hijacked by the wrong people" at the wrong time "claiming God's authority," Stanton said, the city's e-mail system was so clogged with letters of opposition that it shut down.

But after he was fired, in what Stanton described as a paradox, strangers started sending flowers and stopping by his house and dropping off food.

Organized by Unitarian Universalists and Unity Church of Clearwater, the event drew pastors and congregation members from more than a dozen local churches and synagogues.

Police monitored the demonstration, which drew one or two protesters, but made no arrests.

One counterprotester was John Junstrom, 50, who said the commission's decision to fire Stanton was "God ordained."

The only city commissioner to show up to watch the protest was Rodney Woods, who voted with Mayor Pat Gerard against firing Stanton.

"I'm glad people have the courage to stand here for what they believe," Woods said.

Times staff writer Lorri Helfand contributed to this report. Eileen Schulte can be reached at 727 445-4153 or schulte@sptimes.com.