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Racist comment inquiry expands

Published Sep. 4, 2005

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

One city commissioner wants a fire lieutenant terminated for making racist remarks at a fire house, and another intends to hold the city manager responsible if further acts of discrimination continue to surface in the workplace.

Those were among the calls for action that came from City Hall Monday as an investigation widened into reports that city firefighters make racially charged comments while on duty.

Lt. Jeannine Horton, an 18-year veteran firefighter, confessed to making remarks in September in front of firefighters that included, "I hate n------."

A fire department investigation began this month. On Friday, the city's personnel director, Pat Catalano, stepped in to lead the probe after Horton told investigators that other firefighters used slurs. Now the city is looking at other firefighters, including Horton's supervisor.

Commissioner Pat Gerard said the city must have a "zero-tolerance policy" toward employees who use ethnic slurs.

"My feeling is she should be terminated," Gerard said.

City Manager Steven Stanton said Gerard is not alone. He heard from many on the commission after the St. Petersburg Times published stories documenting the racist comments in the work environment, and that a supervisor chose not to report them.

"I think everybody, after reading the news article, was substantially concerned and legitimately wanted to know what the city would be doing," said Stanton.

Stanton said Catalano has taken over the investigation because she has the appropriate training to "ensure fairness to the employees and due process to the city."

Catalano has already interviewed 14 firefighters and said she plans to interview four or five more today.

Stanton said the scope of the investigation has extended to the firefighters who were with Horton when she made her remarks.

Horton told investigators the incident occurred in September during a conversation with other firefighters at Station 41. She said they used terms such as "towel head" and "lazy blacks."

"We are looking at those employees that may or may not have engaged in inappropriate conversations themselves," Stanton said. "Who engaged, who said what. And if inappropriate conversation took place, what we are going to do about it."

The investigation is also scrutinizing District Chief Jeff Day, who told the St. Petersburg Times last week that he knew about the incident after Horton confessed in September, but chose not to discipline her or report the incident.

"I think everybody has the same questions," Gerard said. "Is this indicative of a bigger problem? Or is this one individual? I think that does indicate there is a bigger problem here and we need to do something about this."

Commissioner Harriet Crozier called the subject of the investigation "disappointing to hear."

Commissioner Pat Burke called it "an upsetting issue," but said she has faith that Catalano and Chief Caroll Williams will root out the trouble.

"You have to go through the process and find out all the information," she said. "If you don't, you haven't done your job. All of this comes out."

Commissioner Charlie Harper has scheduled time to meet with Tami Bach, an assistant city attorney, so she can draft a human rights ordinance. He said Clearwater, St. Petersburg and Tampa have such ordinances, which allow cities to better enforce anti-discrimination policies.

The City Commission must make a statement that Largo does not tolerate racism, Harper said. He worries about the city's reputation in the community, especially in surrounding areas that may be deciding whether or not to join Largo through annexation.

"Steve Stanton needs to know it better not happen again," Harper said. "I'm holding him responsible. He needs to communicate loud and clear to the employees of Largo. Here we are, trying to annex property and somebody thinks we are a Third World city without actions. No way!"

Stanton said he accepts that burden.

"It stops at my desk," Stanton said. "I have an absolute responsibility to make sure these things don't occur, and if they do, that the city manager will take appropriate steps to make sure they don't happen tomorrow. That should be the community expectation, as well."

One person not being investigated is Lt. Joe Horton, Jeannine Horton's husband. Joe Horton supervises a shift at the same fire house, but Catalano said the pair work shifts, on different days, and have different supervisors.

_ Michael Sandler can be reached at 445-4174 or