By DOUG NURSE / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Published on: 10/05/07
Some Milton City Council candidates say they feel like they're walking into a lion's den for a political forum sponsored by the non-partisan League of Women Voters.
The forum is being conducted at a church where some candidates attend, the church's pastor is asking the questions, and it's being organized by volunteers who are already supporting some candidates.
Some office-seekers find the set-up a bit unsettling, even if it's sanctioned by the non-partisan League of Women Voters.
"I don't feel like it's a level playing field," said Roger Santi, who is campaigning against Julie Zahner Bailey, a member of the church. Santi, as well as some other candidates and their supporters, say some office seekers have a home field advantage in the forum.
• The forum is being held at Birmingham United Methodist Church, whose membership includes a council candidate who runs the church youth program and Milton's mayor, who is supporting some of the candidates.
• The moderator is the church's senior pastor.
• The event is being organized by two supporters of candidate Zahner Bailey.
• One of those supporters, Leon Cole Jr. , filed ethics complaints with the city, and then with the state, against one of the campaigning city councilman. The city ethics board threw out the complaint. The state complaint is still pending.
Santi said he was attending the forum because he has no choice politically. "We felt like not showing would give us worse press than going and getting ambushed," he said.
One sitting City Council member, Bill Lusk, called the League and unsuccessfully argued for a change of venue.
Bob Bearden, of the League of Women Voters, said candidates need not worry. The moderator has strict rules to follow. He said all questions, including those from the audience, will be phrased or vetted by league officials, none of whom live in Milton.
Some of the candidates' concerns stem from long-standing rumors that some candidates were tipped off to the questions in advance during a similar forum last year. Bearden says the rumors are unfounded.
No one local will see, pick or handle the questions until they are handed to the moderator just before the event, Bearden said. While candidates for one post are taking questions, the other candidates will be sequestered so they can't hear what's being asked.
And Bearden said the League of Women Voters often conducts forums in churches, usually because they have the facilities to handle the crowds.
Cole said he tried to schedule the forum at Milton High School, but the auditorium was booked up. Middle and elementary schools were considered but rejected because acoustics often are poor, he said. He knew the church was available and willing, so he chose that option.
Last year a television anchor was the moderator. But with time running short, Cole turned to the church and asked Pastor John Wolfe. The pastor, Cole said, was initially reluctant but eventually agreed.
Cole said he has no interest in knowing the questions, and said he took on the task because no one else seemed willing to. He said he turned to the League of Women Voters because they would ensure a fair forum.
Cole said his complaints against O'Brien shouldn't make him feel ill at ease.
Bearden said he plans to be at the forum, just to ensure nothing untoward happens."Things are so tightly controlled," Bearden said. "Our goal is to inform voters, so they leave the forum knowing more about the candidates and their choices."