Commission grapples with Stanton fallout

Published May 17, 2007

LARGO - Depending on who's talking, this week's City Commission vote to seek an investigation into who knew what about Steve Stanton's plans for sex-change surgery is either an attempt to clear the air or part of a smear campaign.

At the request of several outspoken critics of city officials, commissioners voted 5-1 Tuesday night to ask the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office to look into whether city officials who knew Stanton's secret violated the city charter by not telling others.

Mayor Pat Gerard cast the dissenting vote and called the action "a waste of time and waste of energy."

"As far as I'm concerned, the city manger telling me he's a transsexual is not misconduct, " Gerard said.

Sheriff's officials said their agency had yet to receive a written request from Largo, so they couldn't comment on what any investigation might entail.

In the past, the Sheriff's Office has investigated issues concerning Pinellas County municipalities, Sgt. Jim Bordner said.

On May 1, Largo resident Curtis Holmes turned in a petition with 28 signatures questioning whether eight current or former city officials violated the city charter by not telling the full commission what Stanton had told them privately. Holmes could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The petition names Gerard and Commissioner Gay Gentry, along with Stanton, police Chief Lester Aradi, outgoing fire Chief Jeff Bullock, City Attorney Alan Zimmet, and director of human resources Susan Sinz. It also lists Gerard's husband, Eric, and former City Commissioner Pat Burke as individuals whose actions should be scrutinized.

At the Commission's May 1 meeting, former City Commissioner Charlie Harper and resident Chester Rowe also encouraged the investigation.

The 6-page petition claims that section 2.06 of the charter may have been violated. The section says the mayor or a city commissioner must report all violations or neglect of duty or any misfeasance, malfeasance or nonfeasance in office, or improper conduct by any elected or appointed city office.

As an example of Stanton's potential malfeasance, the petition cites "dressing as a woman on city time and conspiring with city employees to keep vital information from the commission."

Commissioners voted 5-2 to fire Stanton in March, a month after the St. Petersburg Times reported he was undergoing hormone therapy preparing for gender-reassignment surgery.

Stanton has since petitioned a court to legally adopt the first name Susan and this week lobbied Congress on behalf of a bill that would protect transgender employees from workplace discrimination.

Gentry, who voted to request the investigation, said she has nothing to hide and sees other motives behind the petition.

"In reality, it's not going to accomplish anything because I believe the purpose of the investigation is to get at the mayor, " Gentry said. "There are also some hurt feelings, because somebody got told before somebody else did."

Commissioner Andy Guyette, who made the motion for the investigation, said he believes there may be other motives behind the petition but said the investigation is necessary.

"It's important that we stop any speculation where the citizens have the doubts they have of the commission, " Guyette said. "By going through an investigation, they will hear that there were no issues and that the commission is doing what they are supposed to be doing. It's about bringing faith back in the commission."

Commissioner Harriet Crozier agreed.

"I see it as trying to clear everybody's name and move on, " she said.

Crozier said she contacted Largo police about conducting the investigation before Tuesday night's meeting and was directed to the Sheriff's Office.

"We had citizens come to us, ask us to investigate, " she said. "We need to know. I don't believe there was a violation. I'm hoping an investigation will prove that and then we can move on."

Meanwhile, the City Commission in Sarasota, where Stanton has applied to be city manager, has gotten a sense of how divided Largo officials are over Stanton's performance.

As part of Stanton's application to Sarasota, a consultant helping with its manager search interviewed several of her references. A summary was provided to Sarasota commissioners, including quotes from references whose names were not provided.

Overall, comments were positive, noting Stanton's intelligence, vision, public speaking skills and ability to handle stress.

One unnamed elected official in Largo told the consultant, "He's a great visionary. He always know what's going on in all areas of the city and in the community."

Asked for weaknesses, an official said, "Stanton could be heavy-handed with his employees."

Another said Stanton "has trouble gaining trust in his employees and building friendships. The employees here found him intimidating. He does not take any type of criticism well."

Asked if they would hire Stanton, the references gave a variety of answers, ranging from "No" to "Oh absolutely."

Times staff writer Jacob H. Fries contributed to this report.

At a glance

A charter question

Largo commissioners voted Tuesday to seek an investigation into whether city officials who knew about former City Manager Steve Stanton's plans to become a woman violated this section of the city charter:

Section 2.06 General Powers and Duties

(b) The mayor or a city commissioner shall report to the city commission all violations or neglect of duty or any misfeasance, malfeasance or nonfeasance in office, or improper conduct on the part of any elected or appointed official that may come to his or her knowledge.

View from afar

Sports columnist has transition with dignity

Along with Susan Stanton, one of the country's most well-known transgender women may be Los Angeles Times sports columnist Christine Daniels, who until last month was known as Mike Penner.

Daniels did not attend this week's transgender lobbying effort in Washington, but in a recent interview with Newsweek, she described watching the Stanton controversy from a distance. The interview is at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/18615905/site/newsweek/. Here are several excerpts from the interview:

There was no way in the world I wanted to do that column (announcing her transition). I tried talking (the Los Angeles Times) out of it. I didn't want to make this public. Two weeks before that column ran I was thinking of quitting the Times. I talked to editors in other sections - the Calendar and Image sections - and I was watching the Susan Stanton case from afar.

... But Randy Harvey, my sports editor, was supportive from the start. He said this is a news story, we have it, we can control the information and we don't want what happened to Susan Stanton to happen here. I agreed with that.

... A few years ago when I was thinking very seriously about going down this road, I talked to a transsexual friend who had gone through it 10 years earlier. She said if you really feel you have to do this, be prepared to lose your marriage, your job and all your friends. That floored me, leveled me. A lot of people have lost their jobs. For me, it was just the opposite. The Times has probably set the template for how to let an employee transition in dignity. I can't commend them enough. I have kept 99.9 percent of my friends, and 85 percent of them have become better friends. I never expected anything close to that reaction.