4J board candidate takes issue with debate rules

Not everyone’s happy about the rules set out for the April 30 4J Board Candidate Debate planned by South Eugene neighborhood associations and moderated by EW. Debate organizers say they’re simply following debate guidelines as per the League of Women Voters debate format.

Colin Farnsworth, local substitute teacher running against incumbent Mary Walston for Board Position 7, says it is unfair that his debate was canceled. In an April 23 email sent to EW, entitled, “Censorship of Candidates on April 30th,” Farnsworth says:

All the candidates were invited by the south Eugene Neighborhood Associations and the Chairs of the Neighborhood Leaders Counsel to participate in the 4J School Board Debate that is coming up next Thursday. Mary Walston, my opponent in the race said she couldn’t attend the event due to a family conflict and asked that my participation in her absence be prohibited. The coordinators immediately agreed to her request. This has deeply frustrated me because one of the main reasons I decided to run in this race was to add the important perspective that is missing from all the other Board members and candidates: An in-class and teachers perspective to the issues surrounding education in our local public schools. This event will be one of the largest public forums available for candidates to express their platforms and their perspectives on the current problems facing our public schools. As a candidate that doesn’t have a lot of money to spend, nor a campaign committee, little name recognition in the community, and no big endorsements, it seems extremely unfair that my perspective will be censored during this event and will deeply impact my chances for election.

He continues:

I want people to know that I have been excluded from this event but I will be allowed to participate in the City Club of Eugene on May 8th.

A story in the R-G details how in an April 6 email to event organizers, Mary Walston expressed dismay that organizers had pre-scheduled the event for April 30 without checking candidate availability first. She requested that her opponent not be given time to speak, or that the event be rescheduled.

Juan Carlos Valle and Heather Sielicki, the event’s organizers, did not reschedule the event, but said in an email back:

We are sorry you are not available for this debate during the election cycle, but we understand previous commitments. As volunteers for our neighborhood associations, our intent is to help our neighbors and all the candidates make a connection with as many neighbors as possible, to learn about the candidates and about an important topic to Eugene: Education. This and any forums we coordinate is intended to be fair and uniform. As such, we will not give preference to one candidate over another. If not all Director Position candidates are available for the debate, we will not allow any other candidate to have the floor. Position 7 will need to have all candidates participating. Same as the rest.

Sielicki tells EW that the debate is following the rules and format of debates administered by the League of Women Voters. According to the League of Women Voters’ guidelines for debate, there are certain legal risks associated with allowing one candidate to debate when the other candidate is not available:

It sometimes happens that only one candidate in a contested election accepts a debate invitation or that a candidate cancels a debate appearance after agreeing to participate, leaving the debate with only one participant — often called an “empty chair” debate.  If only one candidate accepts the invitation, the debate should be canceled.  While cancellation is also the most prudent course of action when a candidate fails to appear at the event or backs out shortly before the debate, Leagues may need to consider whether and how to proceed should they find themselves in an empty chair debate situation.

The guidelines continue:

There are no specific guidelines from the FEC or the IRS pertaining to the ability of nonprofit organizations to sponsor an empty chair debate.  (FCC regulations would preclude any broadcast coverage of such an event.)  Inasmuch as an empty chair debate, by giving one candidate a forum to talk to voters all by him/herself, bestows a real benefit on that candidate, there is a risk to any League that hosting such a debate would run afoul of FEC and/or IRS rules as well as the League’s nonpartisan policy.

Elsewhere, the guidelines say:

An empty chair debate should not be conducted if all but one candidate decline the League’s offer to participate in a debate.  It would be very risky for the League to sponsor the debate, knowing from the start that there will be only one participant.

As such, event organizers canceled the debates in which not all candidates were available. In this case, that included a debate between Colin Farnsworth and Mary Walston for Board Position 7. This also included cancelling a debate between Eileen Nittler, Scott Landgreen and John A. Baumann for Board Position 4. Landgreen was not available April 30 to debate.

As the “Colin of my group,” Nittler says, she is in a similar position and had her debate canceled because not all candidates could attend the debate. She tells EW that she’s been in the loop regarding the debate from the beginning. “The way I see it,” she says, “It’s set up as a debate format, and you really can’t have a debate with one person there. There’s logic in saying we’ll have candidates available, but I don’t see it as censorship.

“There are other opportunities to debate, like the City Club debate,” she continues. “But how would you really do that? How would you have a debate with only one person? It’s really a big deal about nothing. I’m not invited to everybody’s birthday. It’s just a matter of practicality.”

She says that a while back, she sent a letter to the editor to the Register-Guard, and the newspaper informed her that its policy is not to print letters from candidates, because then they would be required to print letters from all the other candidates. She says the situation is similar to the debate rules.

Nittler says she’ll be present at the debate to table and speak with voters 6:30 pm April 30 at the Hilyard Community Center, 2580 Hilyard St.