By Donald Wittkowski
Members of City Council on Thursday night called for a new group to take over as the main sponsor of Ocean City’s political debates and forums in the future, saying the current organizer has done a poor job and appears to be biased.
Fairness In Taxes, the local government watchdog organization that traditionally sponsors the debates, was strongly criticized for its handling of an April 24 candidates forum that was supposed to feature three Council incumbents who were up for re-election.
However, incumbents Keith Hartzell, Karen Bergman and Peter Madden didn’t attend the forum. Bergman and Madden said they never received invitations from FIT, while Hartzell explained that he had an out-of-state commitment and couldn’t make the event.
Hartzell, Madden and Bergman all ran unopposed in the May 8 municipal election to win new four-year terms. FIT had wanted them to appear at the forum for a question-and-answer session with the public leading up to the election.
Jim Tweed, FIT’s president, defended the way his group ran the forum. He said he mailed out invitations to Hartzell, Bergman and Madden on March 16, more than five weeks before the forum.
“FIT received a message from Hartzell that he would not come. That’s the only one we heard from,” Tweed said in an interview with reporters after Thursday’s Council meeting.
During the meeting, Hartzell and other Council members scolded FIT for how it organized and advertised the forum. Hartzell, in particular, blasted FIT for giving the false impression that he skipped the event because he had something “better to do.”
Hartzell said he attended a leadership conference in Gettysburg, Pa., on April 24 and also had to drive to New Hampshire later that day for a meeting with a business client.
Directly addressing Tweed, who sat in the audience during the Council meeting, Hartzell said FIT made little or no effort to contact the incumbents to invite them to the forum. He also said the event was badly organized.
“I really feel it was done inadequately,” Hartzell said.
Criticism of FIT from Hartzell and other members of the governing body stirred up longtime tensions between Council and the watchdog group. Hartzell said FIT has evolved from being a local civic organization into a “political action group.”
Tweed told reporters that FIT, as an organization, never formally endorses political candidates. He added that individual members of FIT’s board may throw their support behind candidates.
Joined by other Council members, Hartzell argued that political forums should no longer be organized by FIT. The Council members suggested that another group, perhaps the League of Women Voters, should take over as the principal sponsor.
“The League of Women Voters should be the headliner,” Councilman Michael DeVlieger said in an interview. “A neutral party should do it.”
In comments during the Council meeting, DeVlieger said the April 24 forum was “handled very poorly” by FIT. DeVlieger maintained that future forums should be turned over to the control of another group because FIT appears to be biased.
“I think it’s tainted at the moment. I think it needs to be refreshed,” DeVlieger said of the format for the forums.
DeVlieger and Bergman also said FIT made a serious mistake by advertising the forum even before the organization received confirmation from the three Council incumbents whether they could attend.
“To me, that’s false advertising,” Bergman said. “In that respect, I don’t think that’s right.”
Councilman Bob Barr also criticized FIT, saying the forums should be changed to “make sure it’s fair” for the candidates and the public.
“I think we need to do better,” Barr said.
Tweed began his public remarks to Council on Thursday by congratulating the three incumbents and Mayor Jay Gillian on their election victory. However, he angered Council when he questioned why the incumbents did not show up for the forum. At the same time, he gave the Council members copies of the invitations that he said he mailed out on March 16.
Tweed, in comments to reporters after the Council meeting, said FIT should remain one of the sponsors of the political forums, even if it shares those duties with other local organizations. By having more than one community group involved, it would bring different ideas to the forums, all for the benefit of the public, he said.
“I would be glad to see FIT not being the only sponsor in town,” he said.
In the past, FIT co-sponsored political debates and forums with other local groups. Two of those organizations no longer exist, Tweed said.
FIT also tried to arrange a debate on April 27 between Gillian and his challenger in the mayoral election, John Flood. Gillian, who easily won re-election, declined FIT’s invitation to the debate, citing two lawsuits that Flood and his son have filed against the city. Flood made a solo appearance on April 27 to talk with the audience members.