Council Debates Televising Candidate Forums

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The Community Room at the Newport Beach Civic Center, where candidate forums have been held in the past, was just one of the possible facilities mentioned as the NB City Council discussed a potential policy regulating usage and televising candidate forums.
— NB Indy file photo ©

The current Newport Beach City Council debated last week whether or not future Council candidate forums should be broadcast on the city’s television channel.

Council voted 6-1 to continue an item that aimed to create a policy to regulate City Council candidate forums held at city facilities and/or filmed for broadcast on the city’s government access television channel, Newport Beach Television. Staff will return with the item at a future study session with more detailed background information.

Councilman Ed Selich dissented.

“I voted against it because I did not think there was any need to change the policy at all,” Selich said this week. “We’re creating a problem where a problem doesn’t exist.”

If staff returns with some reasonable, minimal criteria he may not be opposed, he said. But he would prefer it remain unchanged.

Selich, who has been involved in city politics for nearly 22 years, said it is something that is best left in the hands of staff to administer.

“We have had forum after forum,” over the years, Selich said at the meeting last week “This has never come up before… All of a sudden this year we have a problem? It really mystifies me.”

This year, only a handful of the 12 total forums asked to be broadcast. The city ended up only televising four forums.

Corona del Mar Residents Association asked for their forum to be televised, but it was fairly late in the process, explained City Manager Dave Kiff. He denied the request because it hadn’t been set up in the budget. It was a bit arbitrary on his part, Kiff admitted.

So he thought the city should have a policy on how to decide which groups, or all or any, get televised.

The city previously authorized the televising of three different forums – Speak Up Newport, Feet to the Fire, and the West Newport Beach Association – and this was the first year they had more requests to televise the forums, Kiff explained.

The NB Chamber of Commerce’s forum was “inadvertently” televised because it was put on as part of their monthly Wake Up! Newport program, which the city regularly televises.  

The item was also brought up because Kiff and Public Information Manager Tara Finnigan were “struggling with a couple different issues associated with candidate forums,” Kiff said.  

They also didn’t have clear authorization by the council to waive fees for the rental of rooms and city facilities , Kiff said.

(left to right) Phil Greer, Will O’Neill, and Fred Ameri, all for District 7, Shelley Henderson and Brad Avery, both for District 2, and Lee Lowrey Jeff Herdman, and Mike Glenn, all for District 5, discuss the issues during Corona del Mar Residents Association’s Newport Beach City Council candidate forum on Monday. — Photo by Sara Hall ©
The 2016 Newport Beach City Council candidates (left to right) Phil Greer, Will O’Neill, and Fred Ameri, all for District 7, Shelley Henderson and Brad Avery, both for District 2, and Lee Lowrey Jeff Herdman, and Mike Glenn, all for District 5, at a forum recently held at the city’s Oasis Senior Center.
— Photo by Sara Hall ©

Mayor Pro Tem Kevin Muldoon raised several concerns about the issue.

He doesn’t want any political party – republican, democrat or any other – perpetuating their message with taxpayer dollars, he commented. He is also concerned if a for-profit or developer, wants to host a forum or presentation.

“This actually is a great policy,” Muldoon said. “We don’t need neo-Nazis or other political parties that we can’t control showing up with PACs and money, using taxpayer funds to perpetuate their political agenda.”

This policy is “sensible way” to control and avoid any radicals or others abusing the system, by not saying or allowing anything political at all, Muldoon said.

A few members of the public criticized Muldoon’s comment to “control” groups, which Muldoon clarified that he meant to avoid any politically biased  group pushing any agenda using taxpayer funds.

“The law requires equal treatment of political groups, so if the city subsidizes the filming of forums hosted by any political group, it must pay for the filming of all political groups,” Muldoon explained in an email this week.

So rather than have a push back and forth between groups who want to push their agenda, he would rather it be completely nonpartisan, he said at the meeting last week.

He suggested they only be nonprofit, nonpartisan, legitimate local groups that promote impartial dialog.

“In my opinion, the city should not use taxpayer funds to broadcast a political group’s agenda,” Muldoon continued in the email. “However, I do support offering free access to city facilities for forums organized by local political groups, and their option to pay for the filming of the forum.”

It’s misleading to say it would be using taxpayer funds, responded Councilman Keith Curry, who was strongly opposed to the proposed policy. It’s using an otherwise empty city facility to host the forum without paying a fee for it, Curry explained.

“Don’t be fooled,” Curry said. “This is simply another cynical, small-minded attempt to manipulate the political process and the election coming up by people who are afraid to answer questions from real voters.”

The current process worked well this year, and for many years previously, Curry noted.

That’s all been for the benefit of transparency, broader dialog within the community and more educated voters.

“I think we ought to be doing everything we can to encourage people in the community to have candidate forums,” Curry said.

Video recording and posting forums online is the only way for many voters to hear the candidates and get informed, Curry pointed out. As far as what is shown on NBTV, this is very valuable to the community, he said.

The way the policy is worded, it would exclude very specific individuals and groups that are “targeted,” Curry said, like the Newport Beach Women’s Democratic Club, which was one of the most well-done forums of the election cycle this year, Curry said. The club’s media chairperson, Saboohi Currim, spoke during public comment and said their club hosted the forum as a nonpartisan event.

The language banning individuals from hosting forums seems to be aimed at him, Curry said, since he held a “job interview” forum for candidates in his district.

“[The policy[ is a thinly veiled and poorly worded attempt to limit the campaign forums in the next election cycle by people who may not want to talk in front of a specific group and to try and extract money out of them to keep them from having these forums,” Curry said.

Curry’s job interview forum did bring this issue to his attention, noted Councilman Scott Peotter. But the idea that it’s out to stop certain groups from hosting an informational forum is “hardly the case,” he said.

The key point is that it’s not going to be funded by taxpayers, he added, it’s going to be at their own expense. The policy will “level the playing field,” Peotter said

“I don’t think that we ought to fund, as taxpayers, fund partisan presentations,” Peotter said.

Peotter argued that Curry’s job interview forum was very partisan and biased.

“The thought of using public funds just to push someone’s personal agenda, whether it’s a job interview or some sort of feigned forum, which is with fixed questions and derogatory statements about other candidates or some political party pushing their agenda with taxpayer funds, it’s just not in the spirit of the city,” Muldoon said.

(left to right) Brad Avery in District 2; Mike Glenn, Jeff Herdman, and Lee Lowrey for District 5; and Fred Ameri, Phil Greer (hidden slightly in background), and Will O’Neill for District 7, use"thumbs up" or "thumbs down" paddles to answer a question asked by moderator Lucy Dunn at the NB Chamber candidate forum on Tuesday. — Photo by Sara Hall ©
The 2016 Newport Beach City Council candidates (left to right) Brad Avery in District 2; Mike Glenn, Jeff Herdman, and Lee Lowrey for District 5; and Fred Ameri, Phil Greer (hidden slightly in background), and Will O’Neill for District 7, at a forum with moderator Lucy Dunn held earlier this year in the Friend’s room at the NB central library. The event was part of the NB Chamber of Commerce’s monthly Wake Up! meeting, which is televised by the city.
— Photo by Sara Hall ©

The forums this year featured competing candidates answering the same questions and demonstrating their own individual positions on issues, not a partisan group pushing their own agendas, Curry commented.

It’s a slippery slope, he added, trying to determining which group is ok and which “not so much,” Curry said.

Making it a lottery or setting up certain criteria so staff and council members can pick and choose are both bad options because they would exclude too many and would not be fair, Selich said. The policy could establish a complicated, time consuming system that creates more of a problem, he added.

“I don’t understand why we wouldn’t let anyone who wants to put on a forum get out there and put on a forum,” Selich said.

If, someday in the future, there are many more groups that want to host a forum, the staff can return to council for direction.

At approximately $1,200 to $1,500 to use the city facilities and film a forum, it’s well within the city budget, Selich said.

Selich pointed out that NBTV is obligated to about 2,200 hours of programming every year, so over a two-year time period (as often as the candidate forums), that’s only about half of one percent of the more than 4,000 hours total.

He also noted that NBTV used to be call PEG, for public education and government, and City Council candidate forums fall perfectly under that title. They help inform Newport Beach citizens, Selich said.

Members of the audience commented that the forums provide transparency on candidates, increase community participation, help create educated voters, confusion about deciding which groups, defining nonpartisan events, free speech, welcoming different opinions, too many loose ends, and making all filmed forums and other meetings available on demand on the city website.  

Councilman Tony Petros suggested staff return with information identifying any problems or issues with the current forum process, giving “precise indication as to those threats, who the groups are and what are reasonable alternative policy measures.”

“I think [the policy] undermines democracy in our community,” Curry said. “It is utterly contrary to voter participation.”

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