In Eugene, we have debates about debates.
Eugene School District 4J school board candidate Colin Farnsworth says the April 30 4J School Board Candidate Debate, organized by south Eugene neighborhood associations and moderated by EW, is censoring his voice in the school board election. Event organizers say they’re simply following the debate guidelines of the League of Women Voters.
Even though there are three 4J board positions contested this year, the debate will only feature candidates for Board Position 5: incumbent Jim Torrey, and newcomers Kevin Cronin and David Nickles.
Farnsworth, in an email to EW, says his debate was canceled unfairly, referencing an April 6 email from his opponent, incumbent Mary Walston, in which she asked debate organizers to prevent Farnsworth from speaking or reschedule the debate because she was not available on April 30.
In response to Walston’s email, debate organizers wrote, “This and any forums we coordinate [are] intended to be fair and uniform. As such, we will not give preference to one candidate over another … Position 7 will need to have all candidates participating. Same as the rest.”
Of that decision, Farnsworth tells EW, “the neighborhood associations didn’t offer any other way for candidates to engage in that forum. I totally understand that we are not going to have an empty chair to debate to, but maybe they could have allowed half the conversation to be more of an open discussion. It does seem exclusionary to candidates not on that political grid.”
According to Heather Sielicki, one of the debate’s organizers, she and co-organizer Juan Carlos Valle formatted the debate based on guidelines set out by the League of Women Voters, a nonprofit that sometimes sponsors political debates as part of its mission to increase understanding of major public policy issues.
The guidelines, available on the LWV website, warn that “empty chair debates,” in which only one candidate in an election is available to speak, give “one candidate a forum to talk to voters all by him/herself” and run the risk of appearing partisan.
“An empty chair debate should not be conducted if all but one candidate decline the League’s offer to participate in a debate,” the guidelines continue. “It would be very risky for the League to sponsor the debate, knowing from the start that there will be only one participant.”
Since Farnsworth and Walston were the only two candidates running for Board Position 7, Sielicki and Valle canceled that debate. Similarly, they canceled the debate for Board Position 4, which included Eileen Nittler, Scott Landgreen and John A. Baumann, as Landgreen was not available April 30 to debate.
“I just want to point out that if you apply that same logic and liability to other debates, then potentially an incumbent could prevent someone from speaking at all of the public forums,” Farnsworth says. “To say these decisions were made out of democratic values and equity seems preposterous to me.”
Nittler, whose debate was also canceled because her opponent wasn’t available, says 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 a logic in saying we’ll have candidates available, but I don’t see it as censorship.”
Nittler continues, “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.”
Both Nittler and Farnsworth will table and speak with voters 6:30 pm Thursday, April 30, at the Hilyard Community Center, 2580 Hilyard St. — Amy Schneider