As Chair of the Westfield Democratic Committee, I have been engaged in negotiations with the Westfield Republican Committee and the Westfield Leader over the upcoming candidate forum on Monday, October 21. The Westfield Leader printed the “Debate Rules” in this week’s paper. Since then, I have received numerous emails, calls and text messages from Westfield constituents asking why I would be OK with a changed format that seems to benefit a missing candidate and incumbents and a proxy statement allowance that flies in the face of impartiality and fairness. Frankly, I am not OK with it. In the broader interest of addressing these concerns, I have outlined the process that brought us here.
On September 19 the designated moderator sent an email informing everyone of the mutually agreed upon date. That email also informed me that one of the Republican candidates could not make the forum and that the accommodation of a written statement being read would be made. I was not told who the missing candidate was nor was I consulted about a proxy statement.
When, on September 25, I was informed that Rich Bodmer, the Ward 2 Republican candidate, was the one who could not make it, I offered 8 alternate dates to have a satellite forum between the Ward 2 candidates. It defies credulity, but Rich Bodmer could not make any of those 8 dates including October 11 when he was available to present himself in Cranford alongside Garwood candidates. When I pushed further, a date was finally offered only to then have The Westfield Leader say it would not be a party to it, and the Republicans subsequently backed out.
Considering that I had done all I could to accommodate Rich Bodmer, I strongly objected to a proxy statement being permitted. It is highly unusual in such a setting and as recently as 2015, The Westfield Leader had denied such a request from councilman Frank Arena. The forum’s goal is to have residents hear directly from the candidates, and if it was not a priority for Rich Bodmer and the Republican Committee to have Ward 2 residents hear directly from their candidate, I didn’t think a proxy statement was fair. My objection was not recognized or addressed, and my request for an explanation of shifting standards was not either. As a matter of fact, all of my subsequent and numerous objections went unanswered. As of today, they have not told me who will read this proxy statement.
On October 10, The Westfield Leader outlined a change in format from years past where candidates for each ward were given a chance to answer and rebut - giving constituents a chance to compare answers on key issues. The new format simply requires that all candidates answer all questions. I objected to this change on the grounds that it limits the range of topics that can be covered and has the potential for a lot of redundancy as we get to the fourth or fifth candidate answering the same question. Pam Wiaczek, the representative from the Republican Committee in these discussions, voiced her agreement with me. Even though both parties to the debate asked for the format to revert to what it has always been, the Westfield Leader insisted on the new format.
Even more egregious, when I repeatedly asked for a guarantee that nobody would stand in for Rich Bodmer and answer questions in his stead, a reasonable request considering this had been done in 2015, Pam Wiaczek responded that she would agree only if "none of the Democrat candidates or third parties can discuss him (Mr. Bodmer) directly or indirectly. He isn't there, so we should all behave as if he doesn't exist for purposes of this evening."
Furthermore, the Republican representative repeatedly insisted on rules of behavior for residents who attend the forum and to have a camera trained on the audience “for the benefit of decorum” because “we should plan for the worst of behavior.” Since the forum is a vehicle to foster public discourse and civic engagement, I yet again stated my objections to this tactic and made clear that I was not agreeing to any confabulated rules. My concerns were ignored, and while this outlandish request was not incorporated into the rules that were printed in The Leader this week, it remains to be seen what will happen on October 21.
Did we consider backing out? Briefly, yes. But despite a changed format that dilutes the dialogue and a proxy statement whose author cannot be verified, we thought it more important that our Westfield Together candidates present themselves to constituents on Monday, October 21 at 7:30 p.m. in Town Hall and do their best to engage around the issues that are important to Westfield residents. I encourage you all to make every effort to attend and show your support.
Chair, Westfield Democratic Committee