The Royal Palm Beach Village Council selected the Town-Crier newspaper last week to run a candidates’ forum before the March 2014 municipal election.
In a 3-2 vote, the council decided Sept. 19 to have the Town-Crier organize the forum, passing over the League of Women Voters, which has historically produced such forums in the community.
The council also rejected a proposal from the Central Palm Beach County Chamber of Commerce, the other respondent to a village inquiry on hosting a forum.
In the March 2014 election cycle, Seat 1, held by Vice Mayor Jeff Hmara, Seat 3, held by Councilman Richard Valuntas, and the mayor’s seat, held by two-term incumbent Mayor Matty Mattioli, are up for grabs.
All three incumbents have indicated to the Town-Crier that they intend to seek re-election. However, the formal filing period does not open until late January.
The only challenger to announce plans to run thus far is Felicia Matula, an alternate on the Royal Palm Beach Planning & Zoning Commission, who challenged Mattioli unsuccessfully two years ago. Matula plans to challenge Mattioli again.
In a previous discussion on the topic, council members had decided to ask the chamber whether it would consider holding a televised forum in conjunction with the Town-Crier, an idea that the chamber rejected.
Several council members objected to the League of Women Voters because of its rule that if a candidate did not appear at a forum, his or her opponent would not be allowed to speak.
Matula told the council that the league’s rule prohibited her from speaking at the last forum when Mattioli did not attend.
“I’m here to plead my case and ask that you consider either the Town-Crier or the chamber of commerce only, because when it was the League of Women Voters, I was unfortunately unable to speak because current Mayor Matty Mattioli was unable to attend,” she said. “As a candidate, as a resident, I think that it’s important that residents and the village get to see who the candidates are, get to hear what everybody has to say and give everybody a fair shake.”
In the March 2013 election, no forum was held due to a scheduling issue between the village and the League of Women Voters.
County Commissioner Jess Santamaria, a resident of Royal Palm Beach, said he thought the League of Women Voters would be the most unbiased organization due to the chamber’s allegiance to the business community and the newspaper’s perceived allegiance to its advertisers.
“Everybody who runs for office should attend a debate and present themselves and their case,” Santamaria said. “Every candidate should attend whenever there is an official debate for the public to be educated on the position of each candidate.”
Santamaria said the league is the most reputable, experienced and organized to conduct the forums. “There’s no question, they don’t have any friendships, relationships with anybody in the community,” he said. “They are the most unbiased group that could moderate any type of discussion among candidates. Both the chamber and the Town-Crier have many relationships with people in the community.”
Valuntas said he did not favor the League of Women Voters because of the rule precluding candidates from speaking if the challenger is not present.
“As Ms. Matula pointed out, she was not able to speak due to the League of Women Voters rule, so they basically favor people who do not show up to debates and let that person control whether there will be a debate,” he said.
Valuntas said he thought the league also has political interests, pointing out that it had recently filed a lawsuit against the state legislature.
Swift said the league conducts debates throughout the nation, and the rule is to prevent a designee of the candidate from representing him. “They don’t allow that person to speak,” he said. “They need to have that candidate there. I agree that the League of Women Voters is the most neutral group, but that one issue is what kills it for us.”
Hmara said he thought it was unfortunate that the league applied its rule locally. “We’ve done our best to get them to fix what we consider that one loophole,” Hmara said, pointing out that he believed the forum he participated in, run by the league, was the most professional and well-run that he had participated in or seen.
Councilman Fred Pinto said he did not recall any organization other than the league conducting the forums in his 10 years of involvement with village government.
“I remember the first time I went through the process, I was very impressed with the independence and the model in which they ran it,” Pinto said. “I’m not up on the specifics of the last few elections, but I do agree that if you’re running for office, you’ve got a responsibility to these situations where you address the citizens. At the end of the day, I think that having an organization that is going to do it right and has the reputation of what it has been doing is more important.”
Valuntas made a motion to have the Town-Crier conduct the forum ,which carried 3-2, with Mattioli and Pinto opposed.
The forum has been tentatively scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 18.