CHATHAM – For the first time in the more than two decades it has sponsored candidate forums centered on the annual town election, the League of Women Voters of the Cape Cod Area has cancelled a planned debate.
That leaves a single event, a forum sponsored by the Chatham Alliance for Preservation and Conservation scheduled for May 2, for voters to hear the five candidates for the board of selectmen discuss and debate the issues.
According to League spokesperson Nancy Erskine, the original date chosen for the debate was April 27. Candidate Seth Taylor was unavailable on that date, and candidate Jamie Bassett questioned the organization's non-partisan status and requested more information on the event format. The three other candidates for the board – incumbents Dean Nicastro and Cory Metters and candidate Peter Cocolis – accepted the invitation.
Erskine said the large meeting room at the annex, where the debate can be broadcast live and recorded, had been reserved for two other dates, but she did not hear from Taylor or Bassett about their availability.
“We were running out of time,” she wrote in an email to the candidates last Saturday announcing the decision to cancel the debate. There were “only so many dates” the meeting room was available, she added.
Taylor, a former selectman who lost his seat on the board to Shareen Davis last May, is challenging the incumbents for the two three-year open terms. Cocolis and Bassett are running for the one-year seat left vacant after Amanda Love resigned.
Erskine said League rules do not allow a debate to be held if only one candidate for each available seat attends.
“That is neither a debate nor a forum,” she wrote in the email.
Bassett said he did not refuse the invitation or indicate that he was unavailable. He said he expressed “some legitimate concerns” to Erskine and League President Scotti Finnegan regarding the organization's non-partisan status. In an email sent on April 13, Bassett said he was “deliberating” about attending the event but he was “not 100 percent confident that your organization is non-partisan.” He said he expressed the same concerns last year when he ran Love's campaign, and asked for details about the “exact format” of the debate.
The bylaws of the League of Women Voters of the Cape Cod Area include a specific non-partisan policy. It states that the League will not support or oppose any political party of candidate at any level of government. League members can work within the political system as private individuals only and cannot use League membership in support of any elected candidate, party or issue.
Florence Seldin, a former League president and Chatham selectman, said she was troubled that the organization's non-partisan status was being questioned. The League provides moderators and time keepers for candidate debates throughout the Cape; she will be moderating a forum in Harwich May 1 and in Brewster May 11. She helps conduct training for League moderators as well. Moderators are usually from a town other than where the debate is being held, and in past Chatham debates questions have been asked by members of the press and the audience.
“I wouldn't want other people to lose confidence in what we do, which we think is an important service,” Seldin said.
Chatham is the only town where the League organizes a candidate debate; in other communities, it provides moderators and time keepers but the events themselves are organized by other groups, she said. The Harwich debate, for example, is sponsored by that town's voter information committee.
The League has been sponsoring candidate debates in Chatham for as long as she can remember, Seldin said, and this is the first time one has been canceled because candidates could not commit to a date. She confirmed that League rules do not allow an “empty chair” debate to be held if the number of candidates and available seats are the same and there are no opposing candidates.
“It's the voters who lose out,” said Erskine.
Taylor said he was unavailable on April 27 and was uncertain if he was available on the two alternative dates. He had already rearranged his schedule when he committed to the Alliance forum, he said.
“I would not commit to LWV without being certain I could meet the commitment,” he wrote in an email. “I am sorry the League decided to cancel the event.” He supports the League, he said, adding that he is a member of the organization and has participated in three previous candidate forums sponsored by the group.
The three other candidates said they were disappointed the League debate was called off.
Metters said the LWV forum “is a good way to reach out to the voters. Various items can be discussed by the candidates and opinions can be expressed openly.”
Nicastro noted that the event has “historically been a highly productive venue for Chatham voters to get a close-up look at the candidates and assess their positions on issues.” He added that he accepted the invitation “without hesitation” and had been looking forward to the opportunity to “speak directly to the voters.”
Cocolis said he found the League debates in the past to be “informative and fair.” The League provides a “non-partisan debate formats and a moderator from outside Chatham with good questions from both the press and audience.”
In a campaign email sent to supporters April 15, Bassett said he had accepted an invitation to attend forum sponsored by the Alliance. “I have found this non-partisan organization to be on the forefront when it comes to important issues concerning Chatham,” he wrote.
The Alliance is an association of 15 nonprofit organizations which “seeks to sustain Chatham's historic, natural and cultural resources,” according to a press release. Because of the diversity of its members, “We could never be anything but politically non-partisan and maintain their support,” co-president Carol Kolb said in an email.
“We seek to promote and advocate for preservation and and conservation, but in our sponsorship of the candidates' forum, we never support individual candidates even though we give them the opportunity to provide their positions on various issues related to preservation and conservation,” she said.
The Chatham Alliance for Preservation and Conservation “Ask the Candidates” public forum will include all five candidates for selectman. Kolb will moderate the event, which takes place at the Eldredge Public Library from 3 to 4:30 p.m. on May 2. This is the seventh year the group has sponsored a candidate forum.
Chatham's annual election is Thursday, May 17.