Gender unlikely to derail Stanton

The Sarasota manager job will be won by experience, most say. Sarasota commissioners are interviewing Stanton and four other city manager candidates today and Wednesday. They plan to name their top pick and a runnerup Wednesday.

Published May 29, 2007

SARASOTA - Here are three factors that probably will help determine whether Susan Stanton becomes Sarasota's next city manager:

Communication skills, budget know-how and experience as a city manager in Florida.

And here's one that people who know Sarasota well expect to play a lesser role - if any - in the decision:

Stanton's transgender status.

"If Susan is not selected, it is because there's another candidate that is more qualified, " said former Sarasota City Commissioner Mary Anne Servian, who met Stanton two years ago and encouraged her to apply for the job.

It would not be, she said, "because they lack the courage to select Susan if she's the best."

Sarasota commissioners are interviewing Stanton and four other city manager candidates today and Wednesday. They plan to name their top pick and a runnerup Wednesday.

Stanton, 48, applied for the job after being fired as Largo's city manager. The dismissal came a month after Stanton disclosed plans to become a woman. She has since applied for a legal name change, but says gender reassignment surgery is at least a year away.

In Sarasota, commissioners won't say how they're leaning but say Stanton's transgender status is not a factor.

"If there is a community in the United States that would accept it, it would be Sarasota, " said Fredd Atkins, who became the city's first African-American commissioner in 1985, more than 20 years before Largo elected its first black commissioner.

Rich in arts and cultural amenities, the city of Sarasota has a reputation for being open-minded and less conservative than Sarasota County as a whole.

In 2002, 73 percent of Sarasota city voters approved a charter amendment banning discrimination based on sexual orientation, among other things.

In contrast, four years ago, Largo city commissioners rejected a proposed human rights ordinance to prohibit discrimination against gay and transgender people.

In Largo, a few big churches organized campaigns against Stanton, flooding City Hall with thousands of angry e-mails and calls.

In Sarasota, there haven't been anti-Stanton campaigns of that magnitude. So far, city commissioners have received about 40 e-mails opposing hiring Stanton and a handful in support.

"Please do not even consider a person of question to be our city manager, " one couple wrote. "We need regular normal people in office."

Two pastors at Fellowship of Believers Church in Sarasota also voiced concerns.

"We have come so far from the wholesome values our country was founded on, " associate pastor Tom Wilhoit, wrote. "Please restore the honor."

- - -

Sarasota's finalists include two candidates who, like Stanton, have extensive administrative experience.

Sunrise City Manager Patrick Salerno has led the city of 90, 000 since December 1990. He oversees about 1, 300 employees and an annual budget of $380-million, more than three times the size of Largo's. He has 22 years of Florida local government experience.

The attention being paid to Stanton doesn't faze Salerno, 56.

"I haven't frankly thought much about it, " he said.

Then there's Robert Bartolotta, who was Jupiter's town manager for four years. There, he managed a budget about a third the size of Sarasota's and was actively involved in the revitalization of downtown.

Unlike Stanton, neither Salerno nor Bartolotta seems to have baggage.

References checked by Sarasota's consultant were glowing for most top candidates, but Stanton's were mixed.

On the plus side, references described Stanton as brilliant, passionate and knowledgeable. They also applauded Stanton's efforts to educate commissioners. But several described Stanton as intimidating, critical and overly demanding of employees.

- - -

Stanton spent most of last week in Sarasota, a city she said she has gotten to know well.

Sarasota is where Stanton lived as Susan Ashley one weekend every other month for the past five years, she said.

It's where she shopped, dined and attended the opera, theater and symphony.

It's also where Stanton went to the Church of the Redeemer, an Episcopal church.

"It's where Susan grew up, " she said.

To prepare for this week's interviews, Stanton nosed around downtown, talked with community leaders, met the police chief and went on a ride-along with a police lieutenant.

"Probably the best conversations I've had are with people that just walk up and introduce themselves, " she said.

Stan Zimmerman, president of the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations in Sarasota, met with Stanton last week and came away impressed with her public policy knowledge. But he couldn't predict how residents would react if Stanton is selected.

"We have 55, 000 people in town, and they all have their own opinions, " he said. "If I had that type of prognostication, I'd be at the dog track tonight."

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