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Pivotal friend votes for his firing

To her, Stanton's ouster is fair. To Largo's former city manager, the decision is discriminatory.

By LORRI HELFAND
Published March 25, 2007


LARGO - Of all of Steve Stanton's bosses, she seemed the most likely to change her mind.

Largo City Commissioner Gay Gentry had a reputation for voting her conscience even when it was extremely unpopular.

And four years ago, she supported a proposed citywide law that would have protected gay and transgender people from discrimination.

But, in the end, her vote helped seal Stanton's fate.

Early Saturday, a month after Stanton revealed he planned to become a woman, Gentry and four other commissioners agreed for a second time to fire Stanton, 48, who had served as city manager for 14 years.

It takes five of the commission's seven votes to fire a city manager.

As Stanton's story continues to unfold on the national stage, many will dismiss his termination early Saturday after a six-hour public hearing as discrimination.

But Gentry said after a night's rest that her vote was far more complicated: that for her it was Stanton's decision to become a woman that made her look anew at how he performed in his job while a man.

Employees, she said she had learned, were afraid of him and his expectation of perfection. Now he, she believed, sought more understanding and tolerance than he had displayed as a manager.

"It could have been anything," she said. "Suddenly the rules were changing and he was asking to be dealt with in a different way than he was dealing with people."

Stanton, reached midday Saturday, stood by his managerial choices and the controversial firings, which included veteran fire officials and a public works employee who chose to stay with his elderly mother when a hurricane was expected to hit.

"Every one of those employment decisions were correct and proper," Stanton said.

He disagrees that Gentry's vote wasn't discriminatory.

But Stanton didn't seem to want to dwell on Gentry or the vote. He said he still hasn't decided whether he will sue the city. Over the next two months or so, he plans to become Susan and start the process of legally changing his name.

He was happy that his story was covered locally and nationally by CNN, Newsweek and a crew from Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. Public speakers at Friday night's meeting had overwhelmingly supported him.

"I'm on cloud nine. It went super. It went great," Stanton said. "This is not about Steve keeping his job exclusively. It was about supplying information and education about something that people just don't understand."

Stanton hasn't decided what he'll do next. He may be a city manager elsewhere down the road. He has been contacted by "numerous recruiters," he said.

Stanton still regards the city commissioners as his friends.

"I'm not sitting here crying about being fired," he said.

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When Stanton confided in Gentry earlier this year, Stanton thought she would support him. She was the first commissioner he told besides Mayor Pat Gerard. The two were the only commissioners who knew about his choice weeks before the St. Petersburg Times approached him on Feb. 20.

But Gentry insisted her decision didn't have anything to do with transgenderism. She could support his "hard-nosed, my-way-or-the-highway" leadership style "provided he held himself to the same standards," she said.

Gentry said she had concerns about his dealings with employees before. She mentioned them to him, but she didn't push him to change. She didn't want to micromanage him.

But once Stanton announced his intentions - and requested the City Commission grant him the time to convince city employees he could do his job as a woman - Gentry said she felt it was time to scrutinize personnel issues more closely. And she called former and current employees.

They told her that he was quick to fire, he didn't accept them for what they were, and he wasn't always understanding when they had medical issues of their own, she said. "He had not done for them what he wanted them to do for him," she said.

Stanton's attorney, Karen Doering, senior counsel for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said people often come up with a variety of reasons to justify discrimination after someone reveals they are transgender.

But Gentry said she would have made the same decision if his job was on the line for any reason.

Some who spoke against Stanton over the past month have said his choice was weird, perverse and against God. And they may be pleased about his firing, she said.

"There are people out there that are real happy and they're happy for the wrong reasons," she said.

Gentry, a church elder at Hope Presbyterian Church, said she thinks being a transsexual is a medical issue. "I still consider him my friend," Gentry said.

Lorri Helfand can be reached at 727 445-4155 or lorri@sptimes.com.