On not taking a position on the issues

I attended the League of Women Voters candidate forum last week that was held in the public meeting room in the Charles Town Library. It is the same room where the County Commission conducts its business. Participating in the forum were the candidates for the Jefferson County Commission from the Harpers Ferry magisterial district, Democrat Ronda Lehman and Republicans Eric Bell and Peter Onoszko. The moderator was Lori Stilley.

Lehman, who is unopposed in the primary, was allowed to give a three-minute statement. This is a departure from past League policy, and as I’ve said before in this space it is a welcome change. Previously, candidates who were unopposed, or had the misfortune to be the only one to show up, were not allowed to participate. Interestingly, it used to be that it was more unusual to find a contested primary race between Republicans and more common to find contested races among Democrats. More recently that trend has reversed.

After Lehman finished her statement the stage was cleared for the debate between Onoszko and Bell. Questions were solicited from the audience and were interspersed with questions from the League. Everything was sailing along smoothly until a question was asked about impact fees. I’m wondering if that question came from the floor or from the League.

After both candidates had given their thoughts on the issue, Stilley, the moderator, launched into a lengthy passionate exposition and discourse about impact fees – what they are, what they’re for — ultimately concluding: “the money has to come from somewhere.” To many in the room, including yours truly, it felt as if the moderator had chastised the candidates for their statements. There were several calls from the audience that the moderator was out of line.

In speaking with Stilley afterward, she told me that the mission of the League is to educate voters on “the issues.” She maintained that she had not taken a position, that her job as the moderator was to “present the facts” since the candidates’ statements were “factually wrong.”

It’s interesting that two people can listen to a statement and hear different things. What I heard both candidates say was that Jefferson County should compare its impact fees to neighboring counties to ensure that we remain competitive. Onoszko went first and Bell essentially agreed with him. I didn’t hear any facts presented or misrepresented. The candidates were expressing their opinions.

In speaking with Bell afterward, he told me that “he had never seen a moderator step so far over the line.” Onoszko added that “it was a shame, since the debate was supposed to be about the candidates and not about the League of Women voters or its moderator.” I think that Onoszko hit the nail on the head. In speaking with Joan Ergun of the League afterward, she conceded that the incident was “disruptive.”

The League maintains an official policy of nonpartisanship. It does not support nor does it campaign against candidates, although there has been some past controversy regarding the latter. It does, however, get involved politically through its advocacy of certain issues.

With regard to nonpartisanship, I would respectfully submit that the League has a perception problem. While there are local members of the League that are Republican, by and large local Republicans do not view the League as nonpartisan. I believe that this is due in part to the issues that the League chooses to advocate; issues that align themselves more with Democrats than Republicans. However, the incident at the forum last week doesn’t help either.

The League, of course, can run its organization any way it chooses, but there are consequences to those choices – it can’t have it both ways. Last week’s candidate forum was about the League and it was about the moderator. It was supposed to be about the candidates from the Harpers Ferry magisterial district running for the Jefferson County Commission. Stilley is a former president of the Jefferson County school board. I would say that she knows quite a bit about impact fees as they were implemented during her tenure on the school board. But she’s not running for office in Jefferson County.  Actually, she doesn’t live in Jefferson County any more. She lives in Berkeley County.  And by the way, Berkeley County doesn’t have impact fees.

— Elliot Simon writes from Harpers Ferry



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