SOUTH ORANGE, NJ - Did she know or didn't she know about the debates?
On Tuesday night, Village President candidate Deborah Davis Ford was at the Baird answering questions from South Orange residents to prepare voters for next week's election.
Her opponent, incumbent Sheena Collum, was not there.
In a post to her personal Facebook page, Village President Sheena Collum said, ”For 2 months, I’ve been asking my colleague Trustee Davis Ford (who has served on the BOT for 12 years) to have a debate with me on various topics that matter to our community. All of these requests have been rejected.
“Now, one week before the election, she’s “willing” to do one debate on only one topic of her choosing and this is where I say, no.”
Emails obtained through both campaigns by TAPinto SOMA, reveal that Collum originally agreed to one single debate on shared fire services, but later demanded a multi-topic debate instead.
"There was never a cancellation because there was never a debate agreed to and yet TAP continued to make it look otherwise,” Collum told TAPinto when reached by text message on Thursday at 1:45 p.m.. “I was honestly dismayed by it. Your local editors received correspondence on it so I would suggest the reporters send to you.”
After a follow-up text message and email requests for further comment at approximately 2 p.m., Collum did not reply further as of 6:30 p.m. press time.
In an April 23-24 exchange between Collum’s campaign manager, Celina Herrero, and Davis Ford’s campaign manager, Rachel Ford, Herrero said Collum agreed to the debate.
“Although we are disappointed that Deborah’s calendar can only accommodate one stand alone debate, I spoke with Sheena and she agreed to the May 7th debate on fire shared services,” Herrero said via email on April 23.
Ford replied the next afternoon to confirm the time and location.
A week later, Collum reversed course following a string of mailers sent from the Davis Ford campaign.
In a letter dated April 30, Collum requested another larger debate that would cover various topics, including planning and redevelopment.
“I am urging you to please accept this invitation to have a debate on planning and redevelopment,” Collum’s letter said. “As a part of the debate, I would love if we could also speak about project finance, tax abatements, ratables, affordable housing, community give-backs, local redevelopment and housing laws, community form and design, density, residential site improvement standards, walkable urbanism, our master plan, and any other topic you feel is relevant to this particular topic (I will have no objections to whatever you propose).”
Over the course of the next two days, debate discussions fell apart, with the NAACP’s Tom Puryear, who was scheduled to moderate the debate, calling talks “not fruitful.”
Puryear said: “If there is no agreement on the terms of a planned interaction, there is no need for us to proceed.”
According to a May 2 email from Rachel Ford to Collum and Puryear, the Davis Ford Campaign remained committed to the originally agreed upon topic, date, time and location.
Beginning on May 4, Village Green editor Mary Mann questioned the Davis Ford campaign via email about the status of the debate.
Mann said in an email that she “heard rumors that the debate was cancelled.”
With Collum’s campaign reportedly copied on the email, Rachel Ford said,“It is not cancelled. We will be there.”
Mann replied that she herself had communicated with Collum and that Collum had told her that she is "happy to do a single fire debate if Deborah will agree to others as well or modify the one night to include more topics."
Ford maintained that Davis Ford was “honoring the original agreement.”
Mann then confirmed the date and time on Monday afternoon and she requested information about the moderator, confirming that Puryear had stepped down.
On Tuesday, several hours before the scheduled debate, the Davis Ford Campaign’s Communications Director Moses Olivia replied, “Had hoped we would see Sheena there tonight. Sorry she chose to cancel.”
Mann’s response sought more information about the debate, specifically who the new moderator was going to be. Mann said, “The Colllum camp is reporting that you haven't reached out to them either with this information. Is that accurate?” This email went unanswered by the Davis Ford Campaign.
When asked about this email exchange, Rachel Ford said that Collum and her campaign were included on every email with Mann, confirming the date, time and location of the debate.
However, Ford said they did not specifically reach out to Collum to confirm. In fact, she said there has not been any communication with Collum’s campaign since debate talks ended on May 2.
“During the calls we repeatedly asserted the agreement they made on April 23 and that we remained committed to the May 7 debate on the fire merger,” Ford told TAPinto SOMA on Thursday.
Collum decided to reach out directly to the Davis Ford Campaign on Tuesday morning about the pending “debate.”
“It appears, from what I’m reading, that you’re hosting a debate for yourself without advising me of details,” Collum said. “My campaign, or me in particular, has not been contacted by anyone or any organization about tonight.”
In a comment on TAPinto SOMA’s Tuesday story on the debate, Collum said she was not aware of any details surrounding the debate.
“Yeah, a little surprised by TAPinto SOMA,” Collum said. “Can my campaign at least get some details on this debate, who is hosting, moderating, what topics we’ll cover? Is this all being worked out by Deborah and the Moderator? If someone could let me know that would be awesome!”
According to Ford, the Davis Ford Campaign explicitly stated repeatedly during previous communication around May 2 that theywe “made an agreement and would hold to that agreement.”
“I think that it was the responsibility of both campaigns to come to a mutual agreement,” Ford said on Thursday afternoon in response to a question related to their lack of communication with the Collum campaign, “and since we clearly stated we would have the debate on May 7, their campaign could have reached out to us at any time to confirm or discuss the change in moderator. “