tampabay.com

With much support, Stanton makes case

By LORRI HELFAND
Published March 24, 2007


LARGO - Facing tough odds and almost certainty he couldn't win his job back, Largo City Manager Steve Stanton and supporters fought for it nonetheless Friday night in a hearing that threatened to continue past midnight.

Joined by his attorney, specialists, and accomplished transgender people, Stanton asked Largo's seven city commissioners to look past gender issues and judge him on his accomplishments in 14 years as Largo's top bureaucrat.

"I'm asking you to realize I'm still the same person today that I was four weeks ago. I'm asking you to judge me on my qualifications and performance and the fact that this organization is the best run organization in Pinellas County," said Stanton, 48.

By press time, commissioners hadn't decided Stanton's fate. But days before Friday's hearing, the five commissioners who moved to fire Stanton on Feb. 27 indicated that they hadn't changed their minds.

The 5-2 vote to fire Stanton came six days after the St. Petersburg Times disclosed he was undergoing hormone therapy in anticipation of gender reassignment surgery. Later stories, which have garnered interest around the world, revealed Stanton had told a handful of subordinates and elected officials about his plans, but not every commissioner.

Stanton's 30 minutes of testimony Friday night, his most extensive comments since the Feb. 27 meeting, were nearly eclipsed by the spectacle of the evening. After Stanton and his team spoke for two hours, commissioners began hearing from the roughly 100 people who had signed up to testify, most in support of Stanton.

Shortly before 10 p.m., the meeting was briefly stopped for a bomb scare; his assistant city manager, Henry Schubert, was treated by paramedics after he blacked out; and across City Hall, dozens of the nearly 300 people in attendance wore light pink T-shirts that proclaimed "Don't Discriminate." They were distributed by Equality of Florida, a statewide advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Stanton apologized for not informing some commissioners before they heard of his plans in the media and he explained why he didn't leave and transition out of the public spotlight.

"Largo has not been a job to me," he said. "Largo's been a passion. One does not just replace one's passion."

Stanton's testimony came after 90 minutes of presentations from his team of experts, who sought to remind commissioners of his success as city manager. They explained what it means to be transgendered and how someone can make a smooth transition in the work place.

Among those supporting Stanton's case were Susan Kimberly, former deputy mayor of St. Paul, Minn., who started living as a woman in 1983; and Margaret Stumpp, chief investment officer for Quantitative Investment Management Associates who transitioned from man to woman five years ago while keeping her job overseeing $60-billion in investments.

Stumpp said her company supported her decision to change genders but acknowledged, "No transition is easy, especially for somebody in a highly visible position." But in her case, she said, no one quit and no one got fired.

"Everyone acted professionally and my associates were uniformly compassionate and understanding," said Stumpp.

Also speaking in support of Stanton was longtime Pinellas County School Board member Linda Lerner, who told the commission it had a "wonderful opportunity" to serve as an example for students by keeping Stanton.

But a handful of speakers asked commissioners to stick by their original decision because Stanton created a culture of fear as a city manager or that his choice was a sin.

"This little thing here has made Largo the laughingstock of the whole country. We're a disgrace. It seems a couple people here want to make Largo into a weirdo town," said resident Jimmy Dean.

Fast Facts:

What's at stake

Steve Stanton had been Largo's city manager for 14 years and received raise of nearly 9 percent in September. The St. Petersburg Times reported Feb. 21 that he was undergoing hormone therapy in preparation for gender-reassignment surgery.

Six days later, five of seven city commissioners moved to place Stanton, 48, on paid leave and to begin the process of firing him from his $140,234-a-year job.

His severance package: one year's salary; vacation time equaling $37,459; and health, life and disability insurance benefits and contributions to his retirement accounts for that period.

Friday night's hearing was Stanton's attempt to persuade at least one of the commissioners who voted to fire him to reconsider. Five votes are needed to fire a city manager.

Stanton hasn't ruled out suing the commission on grounds of discrimination should he lose Friday night's appeal.

How they voted

Voting to fire Stanton for a second time early today:

Commissioner Mary Gray Black, Commissioner Andy Guyette, Commissioner Gigi Arntzen, Commissioner Harriet K. Crozier, Commissioner Gay Gentry

Voting to retain Stanton for a second time:

Mayor Patricia Gerard, Commissioner Rodney J. Woo