Barb Shepherd: A cautionary tale for those who seek the public trust

Rights in action — West Volusians exercise their First Amendment rights in recent days, here, in worship at New Hope Baptist Church of Deltona in May.

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Rights in action — West Volusians exercise their First Amendment rights in recent days — here, in worship at New Hope Baptist Church of Deltona in May.

BEACON PHOTO/MARSHA MCLAUGHLIN

If one of your city commissioners told a woman she needed to pay back some money he gave her — in “ass or cash” — should you know about that?

You have not only the right, but a duty to know it, as a citizen of DeLand, painful as it may be to read or hear.

City commissioners dictate the property taxes you pay. They govern the operation of our police department, determine how well our roads are maintained, make rules for the development of your real estate, and decide how well our firefighters are funded.

You bet we have a right to know who they are and how they behave.

According to police investigators, that crude demand was made by DeLand City Commissioner Jeff Hunter, in a voicemail from Hunter’s cellphone that was harvested by police. 

Investigators also have evidence, they said, that Hunter offered the same woman drugs from his stash of prescription opioids.

Hunter isn’t too happy about all the news coverage of his alleged escapades. He told The Beacon he would prefer to have “no more print” on the story. 

Well, that’s tough.

Hunter’s instructions to The Beacon — that we continue to cover his activities on the City Commission, but steer clear of writing about his private life — came as news was rolling in from Annapolis, Maryland, of the shooting deaths of five members of The Capital newspaper staff.

The suspect in custody was a man who had been upset for years about The Capital’s coverage of his conviction on a harassment charge.

The connection between these stories, albeit slender, highlights a simple truth about a free press: Sometimes, the right of the public to know outweighs the right of an individual to be comfortable.

This is especially true in the case of a public official. Want power over people’s lives? In the United States of America, it comes with a price.

We don’t pry into people’s personal lives for no reason, or delight in demonizing anyone. The Beacon staff has truly enjoyed getting to know Jeff Hunter since he was elected to the City Commission in 2016. Jeff is an open, affable guy who has always seemed to have DeLand’s best interests at heart.

And, we will continue to cover his case, because not only are the facts about Jeff Hunter’s conduct important, but you also deserve to know how our law-enforcement and judicial systems deal with him. After all, it could be me or you accused of a crime, and at the mercy of these same systems of government.

Jeff Hunter’s saga should serve as a caution to the dozens of people who have stepped up this year to run for public office.

When someone is elected to a position of power, or even just wants to be, even if that power is only one vote among several on a tiny town’s city commission, that individual accepts the public trust, and a sacred responsibility to the people being governed.

This is how democracy works. And, it works best in the light of transparency and truth.

— Shepherd is publisher of The Beacon. News Editor Anthony DeFeo contributed to this column.  

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