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Largo firefighters back antibias plan

More than a dozen firefighters went to City Hall on Tuesday night to tell city leaders they are committed to a workplace free of discrimination.

Since November 2002, three lieutenants have left the Largo Fire Department after allegations of inappropriate comments at work. A racial slur in that department prompted city officials to revise the city's internal harassment policy; the changes were accompanied by diversity training.

Most recently, Lt. Edward Sajdak Jr. resigned this month after a human resources investigation concluded that he should be fired for making a remark demeaning a firefighter's ethnicity, and then retaliating against him for reporting it.

"We are here this evening to take the first step to restore your faith in us," said Lt. Ken Mantay, reading from a prepared statement.

"We have been given a clear set of rules and policies to work within," he said. "We understand how important these policies are. We, as firefighters, are sworn to uphold your policies."

Mantay asked commissioners to continue to support Fire Chief E. Caroll Williams.

Williams rotated all lieutenants to different shifts and fire stations this month to maintain a less familylike, but more professional, atmosphere. He has also removed paid cable movie channels from firehouses to make sure no one is offended by the content.

"This commission is extremely proud of our fire department," said Mayor Bob Jackson. "We will always have instances where we make mistakes, but that should not diminish the effortsof our fire department."

Largo resident John Atanasio, however, said he was somewhat "sad, ashamed and embarrassed" by the latest incident.

"Why (Sajdak's) application to resign (was) accepted when this situation was in the process is beyond me," he said.

Rodney Woods, also of Largo, told commissioners he was saddened but not discouraged.

"I'm going to think that 98 percent of the firefighters are nice people," Woods said. "The 2 percent that resist _ just get rid of them."

Employees in any city department might resist the harassment policy, said City Manager Steven Stanton. But that, he said, doesn't mean they won't comply.

Stanton said firefighters have told him that they understand the city's strict stance against discrimination.

"I'm very excited to know that the message is getting through," he said.

After attending a diversity training session, Commissioner Pat Gerard said she felt confident that city employees would adhere to the harassment policy.

"We're better than the press we've been getting," she said. "We're really trying to change the image of Largo to reflect who we really are."

_ Shannon Tan can be reached at or 445-4174.