There are many pathways to public service – the willingness to commit ourselves to a cause greater than our own self-interests and work hard for the common good.
Some make a career of the civil service or serve in the military, others seek appointment to public positions of high responsibility, or volunteer with grassroots efforts to affect positive change in their communities.
And then there are those intrepid few who stand for election to public office.
The motivations and drive to hold oneself out as a political candidate are as varied as the people who participate in the process – a desire for community service, civic involvement, a need to change the status quo, the real ability to make a positive impact, patriotism – and the less noble reasons of power, prestige, personal and professional benefit and outsized ego.
In local government, those we elect to serve are our friends and neighbors – the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker – average people who give of their time and talents to serve in our collective interest. They are our insurance agent, realtor, dentist and clergy, school teachers and retirees, business owners and attorneys – folks from all walks of life, experience and backgrounds.
They take the late-night phone calls about trash collection, patiently listen to citizen complaints, explain the labyrinth of government processes, set budgets, hear zoning disputes, sit on boards and committees, listen to mind-numbing presentations, raise funds and awareness, endure relentless lobbying and persuasion from “power brokers” and competing interests, field personal insults and inquiries, and attend myriad ribbon cuttings, chamber events and rubber chicken civic functions.
In most cases, they serve in the public interest – but a few succumb to the temptation of power and become everything they hated when their political journey began. Others are simply weak-minded or unprepared for the reality of politics – and are quickly taken into the maw of the “system,” a machine that feeds greedily on tax dollars and rejects creativity or individual thought in favor of homogenized conformity and fealty to the shadowy, behind-the-scenes shot-callers who use the public purse for personal enrichment.
For their trouble, everything our elected officials do and say is subject to withering criticism by louts like me.
Many who stand for public office quickly realize it is simply easier to go along, and get along.
But a few brave souls stand firm to their personal convictions, reject conformity, corruption and the status quo, and take a principled stand to serve their constituents honorably while fighting the strong currents of special interests and those elected and appointed officials who are indebted to them.
While I did not always agree with him, in my view, Deltona City Commissioner Brian Soukup was one of those.
His often-unique take on the issues of the day were always centered on the needs of his constituents – with a sensitivity for how decisions made today would ultimately affect the future of Volusia County’s largest municipality.
Unfortunately, his efforts were often met with a belittling arrogance by certain members of the City Commission who are clearly conflicted in their civic loyalties.
Last fall, in a Barker’s View post entitled, “Deltona: Welcome to 1984,” I described a dust-up wherein Commissioner Soukup had the abject temerity to question the motivations of City Manager Jane Shang – in my view, a compromised foul ball who feeds on drama and dysfunction – when she approved a highly unusual mid-service payout of some $93,000 in unused leave as part of a firefighter’s internal promotion.
Commissioner Soukup took issue with the questionable expenditure and publicly stated he believed Shang lied to him by omission when he made inquiry into the matter.
Mr. Soukup’s remarks were met with suspiciously sharp rebukes from Mayor John Masiarczyk and Vice Mayor Chris Nabicht (a retired Deltona deputy fire chief) both of whom thought Soukup’s comments somehow insulted the delicate sensibilities of the Deltona fire union.
During the ensuring brouhaha, Nabicht barked, “You’re out of line, Soukup.”
Questioning a $93,000 in-service payout is out-of-line?
A sitting elected official publicly announcing that he may have received questionable information from the City Manager is out-of-line?
Then, in perhaps the most chilling move ever witnessed from a local municipal government (at least since the coup d’état in the City of DeBary) – Deltona officials proposed something they called a “civility ordinance” – a screwy law designed to control the manner and means by which the people’s elected representatives could point out the errors and omissions of senior executives and voice critical opinions of staff performance or address constituent complaints.
Although the measure ultimately died unceremoniously, it exposed the rapidly metastasizing cancer that is the Shang administration to the air and light of day.
As the “system” will, other self-protection measures were soon implemented, such as denying elected officials ready access to corroborating information by imposing onerous fees for public records requests (you read that right: the City of Deltona charges elected officials for access to public records) block voting on important issues, the selective release of information to individual commission members, marginalizing those who are critical of the majority, open hostility towards constituents who speak critically of Deltona government, a decision barring individual commissioners from placing items for discussion on the agenda without majority approval and a perverse measure which allows only “positive and short comments during commission comment time.”
On Monday, Commissioner Soukup gave up his fight for government of the people, by the people and for the people in the City of Deltona.
In his scathing letter of resignation, Mr. Soukup wrote:
“I can no longer be part of an elected body that, in principal and in practice, continues to create and operate in a culture of injustice and unethical and possibly illegal practices. It is a culture that absolutely refuses to respect, to include and to serve in the best interest of its residents. And worse, it is a culture that willingly condones and covers up unethical practices. It is clear that Deltona is being run by special interests and highly paid consultants, concerned only with lining their own pockets. I won’t be complicit in that!”
The citizens of Deltona have lost a principled leader – an elected official who served in the best traditions of our democratic system of governance – and worked hard to make Deltona City Hall more accessible, transparent, and inclusive.
Unfortunately, the bastardized “system” of what passes for government in Deltona abhors those attributes.
In my view, it is time for Deltona residents to seek answers to the dark questions posed by Mr. Soukup’s resignation.
Now is the time for taxpayers to question the motivations of an elected body – and a city administration – that would stifle the free and open discussion of civic issues, engage in the misrepresentation, manipulation and controlled distribution of critical information, and demonstrate such a complete disregard for citizen concerns and input.
It is imperative that the Deltona City Commission immediately request the resignation of City Manager Jane Shang, and order an independent investigation into the improprieties and unethical practices detailed by a man whose character could no longer tolerate his association with them.
Photo Credit: The Daytona Beach News-Journal