The Royal Palm Beach Village Council directed its staff earlier this month to take steps to make sure that there is a televised candidate forum held before each village election.
Up until this year, there had been an official village-sanctioned candidate forum held shortly before the annual Royal Palm Beach election each March. However, there was no forum held during the last campaign.
The council had asked village staff to look into candidate forum policies in other municipalities and found that only seven of the county’s 37 municipalities were involved with forums or debates in some manner.
At the May 2 council meeting, Village Manager Ray Liggins said that during the last election, neither village staff nor the organization that usually stages the pre-election forum initiated the process to have one. “Without specific direction from the council, staff would continue not taking initiative on it,” Liggins said.
Aside from polling the procedures in other municipalities, Village Clerk Diane DiSanto requested candidate forum proposals from several organizations known to have hosted such events before. Among them were the Palm Beach County League of Women Voters, which has produced Royal Palm Beach candidate forums in previous years, as well as the Central Palm Beach County Chamber of Commerce and the Town-Crier newspaper.
“That does not mean they are the only choices,” Liggins said. “It was just the groups that have done them before in the western communities.”
Liggins said the village could host the forums, airing them on the village’s cable channel as is done for other public meetings.
“In order to be prepared for the next election, if it is the council’s desire to have a televised debate, we would just need some direction from you,” Liggins said.
Liggins said the village should be involved in some manner since it is the village’s facilities and broadcasting equipment that are being used.
Mayor Matty Mattioli said he felt it should be incumbent upon candidates to notify the clerk if they would like to take part in a forum.
Councilman David Swift said he did ask about having a forum during the recent election, and the clerk’s office told him it would be up to him to contact the League of Women Voters. “I did that, and the League of Women Voters said I need to coordinate with the clerk’s office,” Swift said. “I’m not blaming anybody, but it didn’t happen. I’ve been in politics for more than 20 years, and I believe we have always had a televised forum in every election cycle that I can remember.”
Swift said that while he does not believe that the village should run candidate forums, he does believe it should be a staff responsibility to make sure one is scheduled.
“I would like to make it our responsibility to say on a certain date that we go ahead and ask for someone who would be interested in running a debate, and provide a prospectus of how they would run the debate,” Swift said. “I think the League of Women Voters has done a good job in the past, but there’s a couple of rules that I do not like. One of them is if one candidate shows up and the other does not, the candidate in attendance can’t speak. To me, it favors the incumbent.”
Swift added that the League of Women Voters is also not a village organization and is not up to speed on local issues. “I really feel we need to have a televised debate, and we need to initiate the debate and provide it to the public,” he said.
Mattioli, who chose not to attend a debate hosted by the League of Women Voters when he was challenged in 2012 by candidate Felicia Matula, said he did not see why the village should be in the position of having a debate if some candidates do not want a debate. “I don’t know what your problem is, but that’s beside the point,” Mattioli said.
Councilman Fred Pinto said he thought it was more of a procedural than philosophical issue, and recommended that they authorize the village manager and clerk to officially notify organizations that typically host candidate forums that the village has an election coming up.
“Upon that notification, that should trigger that agency to begin whatever process they do to put on the debate,” Pinto said. “It is up to that entity to vet the candidates, whether they want to have a debate or not… All our staff is doing is notifying that entity that we are having an election and here are the candidates. From that moment on, we’re done. The only thing we have to do is assure that we coordinate the date, so we can make sure the facility is available and we have our electronics staff so that it can be televised.”
Vice Mayor Jeff Hmara said he was not sure what the goal of the discussion was. “I thought it was a question of whether or not we wished to have a candidate forum on a regular basis,” Hmara said, pointing out that discussion had used the expressions “debate” and “forum,” which he felt were different.
He preferred a forum format where, if candidates showed up and their opponents did not, they could still participate. “I would like us to support as much an opportunity to hear all of the candidates, and I know what I’m talking about because I get to be in a barrel next,” Hmara said. “I think it’s an opportunity for individuals to be heard in public.”
Councilman Richard Valuntas agreed that the village should support televised candidate forums but have them run by outside organizations. “My suggestion would be just to solicit providers for it, the village provides the cameras and the venue,” he said.
Valuntas’ opinion fairly well matched a motion put forward by Pinto, which carried 5-0.