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Manager finds way to keep stability

City managers are a nomadic bunch.

They come. They go. Political whims regularly blow their lives across the country. I knew one city manager who kept his moving boxes. He knew he'd need them again.

So it is with no great surprise that we learn of the political devolution of Largo City Manager Steve Stanton.

While he has held the job since 1993, the past 18 months have brought a menu of municipal difficulties: a Police Department sex scandal, big property value increases that have begotten higher tax bills, annexation battles with the county and Pinellas Park.

Stanton rankled some commissioners when he applied for another city manager job as he asked Largo for a new contract and a raise. Last week, there emerged talk of firing him.

It's like watching a well-worn Neil Simon play at a dinner theater: The actors play familiar roles with predictable results. We know when to laugh, when to feel sad and when the lights come up.

The odd story is one that would seem not to be news at all: The city manager who has navigated a 16-year career with little scandal or dissent.

That would be John Lawrence, Dunedin city manager.

I asked him last week how he has managed all these years in a business with an average life span of four or five years.

Is it that Dunedin has an extraordinarily content citizenry? Probably not. It's a typical small town, population about 37,000, with typical small town politics.

Have there been no controversial issues? Not that either. After raucous debate and a citywide vote, Dunedin dismantled its Police Department and paid the Pinellas Sheriff's Office to take over. And there was debate over spending city money to keep the Toronto Blue Jays in town for spring training.

So what is it about Lawrence that has kept him in business?

Maybe it's the Yale thing. How many city managers can say they went to college with President George W. Bush? They weren't buddies, but Lawrence said W's reputation was, um, known: Bush was president of the party dog fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon.

And Lawrence?

"I was there for other reasons," he said with a smile.

After a while, a theme emerges. Lawrence, 54, is a smart, well-read person. Of that there is little question. Without pretension, he compares Dunedin to a Vermeer painting. He cites Ulysses.

But he uses that intellect in a way that is relatively rare. He lasers in on what he's hearing and makes other people feel smart.

A prime example: In little, bitty Dunedin, he has 35 citizen advisory committees that end up being focus groups for public policy. There's a committee looking at how to improve Edgewater Drive, a main drag in town. Even a causeway committee. By the time commissioners get an issue, it has been well-vetted. No one is surprised. Everyone has a piece of it.

While his collaborative approach likely has contributed to his longevity, it provides a hook for criticism.

Former Mayor Manny Koutsourais, who was known to get into it with Lawrence, criticized him for this style.

"You don't pay a guy over a $100,000 a year and wait for the City Commission to tell him what to do," said Koutsourais, mayor for six years ending in 1994.

In the end, though, even Koutsourais acknowledges that this quality likely is Lawrence's most valuable asset.

If Lawrence were to cross-stitch his professional bylaws, he said they would read like this: Always be honest, painfully so if need be. No embarrassing public surprises for commissioners. And don't play favorites with information _ what you tell one commissioner, you tell them all.

Mix that with a little luck, he said, and you have a career.

Wise words from an astute man.

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