That pleasurable rush to judgment

By Gary Abernathy - [email protected]

“I’m interested in that drive, that rush to judgment, that is so prevalent in our society. We all know that pleasurable rush that comes from condemning, and in the short term it’s quite a satisfying thing to do, isn’t it?” – J.K. Rowling in her political novel, The Casual Vacancy.

I have defended Drew Hastings when I felt the facts justified defending him, whether over the fire department issue, questions about his residency, his efforts through legislation to clean up the city, his personal investments to remodel old buildings, and other initiatives he has undertaken to improve Hillsboro.

Likewise, I have criticized Drew Hastings when I felt the facts justified criticizing him, such as his decision to drop the city’s longtime insurance agent midway through a contract, the ugly anti-drug signs he erected, his bull-in-a-china-shop approach in lieu of more consensus building (he got better at it), and, most recently, his Facebook post that brought a group of upset residents to the last council meeting.

Whether the facts from last week’s civil and criminal allegations lead to defending or criticizing him is something I’m going to have to wait a while longer to know. In fact, everyone should be waiting a little longer to reach conclusions until all the facts are known and, especially, until he has a chance to defend himself.

As with almost every court case, what we get first are the allegations, accusations and, with a high-profile defendant, front page media scrutiny that goes with it. That is the nature of how our system works. The charges and accusations come first.

When The Times-Gazette broke the story online Wednesday afternoon that a citizen complaint had been filed against Drew alleging malfeasance, and later that same day that a search warrant had been issued for the city building, an assumption of guilt was the first reaction by many.

Search warrants and criminal charges are issued because there is sufficient evidence to believe a crime may have been committed. They are not proof that a crime has been committed, and they are certainly not a guilty verdict.

It’s usually not until we finally get to a trial that we get a more complete picture. Sometimes, the picture doesn’t change all that much. But quite often, hearing the other side of the story changes perceptions from what was widely assumed when only the unchallenged accusations were in the public realm.

I have often criticized the “Get Drew” crowd that exists here for its never-ending attacks on the mayor, throwing one thing after another against the wall, hoping something, anything, would finally stick. Already there are those who have decided to argue the case in the High Court of Public Opinion, Division of Internet, rendering a verdict.

The civil complaint that was filed against Drew last week in Highland County Probate Court contains some names that have been among Drew’s constant critics, not to mention being closely involved in the last mayoral campaign trying to unseat him.

But in this case, the signers of the complaint did not really instigate it. Drew is wrong to write this off as purely part of the “witch hunt.” They signed it because such a filing required five signatures of Hillsboro residents. There are serious questions raised in these cases, and the questions need answered.

The criminal investigation of the alleged use of a city-owned dumpster for personal use may well be the more serious legal charge Drew might end up facing, because it is technically a theft of service. I have no idea of Drew’s innocence or guilt on that, but I don’t imagine there is anyone in town who has spent more money renting the kind of huge dumpsters that sit at sites being remodeled than Drew Hastings. But the allegations need answered, and the law is what it is.

However, it is the question of the document and the stamped signature of Todd Wilkin, the safety and service director – resulting in the refund of a vacant property fee – that is the more serious question to me. According to an affidavit, Todd says he did not sign the document or authorize it to be stamped with his signature. I have several times publicly praised Todd’s integrity, and I will praise it again today. I have said often that he is one of the biggest assets in the mayor’s office, and he still is.

Likewise, Todd Whited, Hillsboro’s police chief, has done the right things in this case, even though all the things he has done have not yet been made known publicly. The chief is doing his job, as he should.

Would all this be happening if the mayor didn’t rub some people the wrong way? In my opinion, no. Does that justify or minimize the alleged actions, if true? No.

I became publisher of The Times-Gazette in September of 2011, and the mayor’s race between Drew and John Levo was just heating up. I didn’t know Drew, but he came in for an in-depth interview that we ran in a four-part series, as we did with John.

In that interview, Drew said something that always stuck with me and that I have thought about often since then, especially when he finds himself in hot water, which is his usual condition. He talked about his childhood in the Kettering area, his life as a vagabond and an entrepreneur, his rather bold decision later in life than most to become a standup comedian, his 20 years on the road from gig to gig, his disenchantment with Los Angeles, and his yearning for a simpler life and locale.

“This is home,” he said then. “This is the first place where I felt a sense of community.”

Drew’s adopted community has mostly been kind and welcoming to him. He is mayor because he was elected, twice, by the people to be mayor. The prosecution – representing the people – may well convince a judge or jury that the mayor is guilty of a crime or crimes that rise to the level of overturning the will of the electorate. We will know that soon enough, but we do not know it now.

With only one side of the story available to us right now, it is easy to presume guilt. But in the United States, including Hillsboro, the law requires a presumption of innocence. The presumption of innocence – or at least an effort to reserve judgment – from his friends, neighbors, the media, and, in this case, his constituents is what he deserves, and what any of us would hope for.

At the very least, everyone should be patient, and wait, and that is what I will do, too.

Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.

By Gary Abernathy

[email protected]