The whole truth about the Stanton story

Published April 4, 2007

The Rev. Charlie Martin is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks, one of the biggest churches in the county. He said on television recently that I and the St. Petersburg Times were "in cahoots" with now-former Largo City Manager Steve Stanton about his plans for a sex change.

People may have assumed they were hearing the whole truth because the Rev. Martin is a good speaker with an authoritative delivery. But the reverend failed to tell the rest of the story and, therefore, misled people.

Let me complete the story.

Martin made that speech March 23 at the emotionally charged, televised public hearing at which Stanton, after 14 years as city manager, appealed to the Largo City Commission to let him keep his job.

Three weeks earlier, the commission had voted 5-2 to fire him, less than a week after the news broke that Stanton intended to have gender reassignment surgery.

Stanton's revelation that he had been cross-dressing and intended to become a woman blind-sided most of those who know him. My jaw dropped when I heard it. I didn't have a clue. Neither did others who work at this newspaper.

Yet in his March 23 comments before the commission and the television cameras, the Rev. Martin implied that I and my newspaper were involved in a secret conspiracy with Stanton.

Martin apparently reached this conclusion because of something Stanton wrote in an eight-page plan detailing how he would "come out" to city employees and the public. He was working on the plan with the help of Mayor Pat Gerard, in whom he confided on Jan. 1.

On Page 1 of that plan, Stanton placed this heading: "Confidential meeting with editors of SP Times (Friday, May 18, 2007)." He then wrote:

"I had a brief discussion with Diane (Steinle) eight months ago and told her I was planning on talking with her in the near future to discuss a 'personal issue and leadership opportunity.' I am confident she will meet with you (Mayor Gerard) and me off the record in exchange for writing a story prior to the release of the information. It is critical to have the support of the paper in this effort and I am confident that the Times will be supportive and see this as an opportunity to demonstrate diversity in the workplace, etc."

Pastor Martin read that section of Stanton's plan aloud at the meeting and treated it like some kind of smoking gun. He said, "Mr. Stanton obviously knew by information he had obtained that the Times would be supportive and make this a very strong case for the cause of transgender people."

Then the reverend explained that commissioners weren't firing Stanton because of his sex change plans but because of "other charges" against Stanton made by a host of residents and city employees. Martin didn't say what those charges were, but he said that people surely wouldn't rally behind someone guilty of them.

"So Mr. Stanton and Mayor Gerard, in cahoots with the St. Pete Times, decided to play the big hand," Martin said. "They dealt the race card, or as I say, the transgender card, because they knew if they played that card, they could get their groups together for a noteworthy rally here tonight. And here you are. You came. But you have been tricked by those in the know: Mr. Stanton, Mayor Gerard and the St. Pete Times."

I don't know why the reverend said those things or why he chose not to tell the rest of the story. But I'll tell you.

Steve Stanton and I did chat on the phone months ago about city business, as I regularly do with other city managers, too. He hinted that he was thinking about his future and might have some news about that down the road. I asked whether he was leaving Largo, but he wouldn't tell me anything else.

We didn't talk again about his future - until Feb. 20, when a Times reporter and an editor walked into my office and said they had heard that Stanton was planning a sex change. They said that when they had asked Stanton about it, he had refused to talk to anyone but me - and only off the record.

After I scraped my jaw off the floor, I called Stanton and refused to grant him an off-the-record interview. I explained that as journalists, our job is to get important news into the paper for our readers, not carry it around in our heads. And a public figure planning to get a sex change certainly was important news.

But we talked some more, and Stanton said he would tell our news reporter everything, on the record, if we would hold off a day so that he could talk to his 13-year-old son first. We agreed, and the next afternoon, Feb. 21, the first story was posted on the Times Web site.

I didn't find out until later that Stanton had a written plan and that he had assumed, incorrectly, that I would talk to him off the record about such an important story.

The Rev. Martin tried to skewer the newspaper in a public venue by telling half of the story and making unfounded accusations. I'm more comfortable giving folks all of the information they need so that they can make their own judgments.

This newspaper is telling the Stanton story professionally and sensitively, as it unfolds, because that's our job.

Regarding Stanton's statement that he was "confident" the Times would be supportive, that was a guess on his part. But I'm proud our editorials called for Stanton to be judged on his job performance, not his gender. Isn't that how all of us would want to be treated?

Diane Steinle is editor of editorials for the North Pinellas editions of the St. Petersburg Times.


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