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Candidates forum a civil event despite outbursts

By Staff | Feb 18, 2009

A standing-room-only crowd filled the Sanibel Community House on Tuesday evening, site of a “Meet The Candidates Night” which had drawn a huge amount of interest from island residents not just for the opportunity to ask questions of the men running for City Council, but for which candidates would actually attend.

David Bath and Dr. David Berger, representing two of the five candidates – the others being incumbents Mick Denham, Kevin Ruane and Marty Harrity – were expected to attend and did. Sue Denham and Doreen Ruane, speaking on behalf of their husbands, each read a statement explaining why they were not attending the forum.

Before Denham and Ruane were given the opportunity to read their statements, several members of the audience began to shout “No!” and “Don’t let them speak!” Moderator of the event, former City Council member Carla Brooks Johnston, quickly dissolved the situation by saying, “We are going to allow them to speak. It’s only fair.”

Ruane’s message to those in attendance explained that the Committee of the Islands (COTI) – the sponsor of the event – never consulted with the three incumbents to decide upon an agreeable date, time and format for the debate.

“I do not consider this a proper setting for a neutral debate given that the sponsor, COTI, is setting the rules and procedures while managing the campaign of two of the candidates (Bath and Berger),” his letter read in part. “I want to emphasize that I will meet and discuss the issues affecting Sanibel whenever and wherever citizens choose provided it is a fair, equitable and truly non-partisan format for all candidates.”

In Denham’s letter, the Mayor praised COTI’s former role as the island’s “watch dog” in the past but disapproved of COTI’s “actively managing the campaigns and agendas of political candidates.”

“I know that my decision (not to attend) may disappoint some people and I’m deeply sorry,” Denham stated. “However, to be true to myself and my beliefs, it was necessary.”

After both Ruane and Denham left the stage, about 30 people seated at the forum promptly exited.

Prior to Tuesday’s forum, Harrity issued a statement explaining why he would not attend the COTI-sponsored gathering.

“I feel that Sanibel deserves candidates that have an allegiance only to the citizens,” his letter read in part. “Sanibel should not have council members that owe allegiance to a Political Action Committee or political party.”

The first question posed to candidates Bath and Berger by Johnston asked how they would protect Sanibel from overdevelopment.

“Everything on Sanibel is protected… except its residents,” said Berger. “I want to tell you that if you vote me onto City Council, I will be your protector.”

Bath agreed, adding, “You really need, this time around, to vote for David and David.”

The second query asked if there needed to be a Conflict of Interest Code implemented for Planning Commission appointments. Bath told the audience that he had heard of some cities who have added such legislation.

“I have not yet studied them, but I am interested in reading more about them,” he explained. “I think that we should pursue this.”

Berger, who recently was not reappointed to his Planning Commission post, said, “An open mind has to be the issue here. I think that this is something we can investigate about the Planning Commission at the City Council level.”

Both candidates addressed a question about their background handling finances; Bath worked in product development at Procter and Gamble for 30 years while operating a horse farm and dog-boarding business with his wife, Gillian, for 28 years. Berger earned a living as a surgeon “for many, many years” and handled the accounting and financial matters of his practice after taking several college courses on the subject.

“In my opinion, you cannot live at your means,” he said, “you have to live below your means.”

Johnston’s next question was “Is Section 86-43 important and, if so, why?”

“When you move into a neighborhood, I think that you should have a reasonable expectation that your neighborhood will not change dramatically,” responded Berger. “In a few words, I think we need to pay attention to this.”

Asked if development interests are controlling the Planning Commission, Bath pointed a finger at fellow candidate Harrity.

“Marty Harrity has been very pro development,” he said, “which indicates that he is against preservation.”

“There is a fine balance between development and overdevelopment,” Berger added.

During the forum, several members of the audience raised their hands or stood up to pose follow-up questions of Bath and Berger. Johnston did take notice of the interruptions but did not stray from the forum format that she had established. In addition, she kept both candidates to the time limitations for their responses.

“I accepted the last minute assignment to moderate on the condition that I’d be able to establish a format that is transparent in offering fair opportunity for all five candidates to address voters,” she said in her opening statement. “Our voters deserve this. I need your help to accomplish this objective.”

Another question posed during the forum, “Are you running on a platform for no change to the island, or for controlled change?” was first responded to by Berger.

“I think that the island is going to change, but I think that the island will change the way the residents want it to change,” he said. “We can’t stop change, but we have to do it in a rational fashion.”

“I think that each (change) will have to be looked at on a case-by-case basis,” added Bath.

One card, submitted by a member of the crowd, asked why three of the current City Councilors were not present. First to respond, Bath said simply, “I don’t know,” which drew some laughter.

Berger explained that he and Denham recently had breakfast together, and the Mayor indicated at the time that he planned to attend Tuesday’s event.

“I can’t speak for Mick or the other candidates, but if it were me and we were in New York City, I’d stand in the window of Macy’s with my shirt off!”

One of the final questions of the evening asked about the lack of civility among the five City Council candidates. Both Bath and Berger did not believe that to be an issue.

“Set an example for yourself and treat other people equally,” said Berger.

“Anger and bitterness is not the issue. This is normal political conflict,” Bath noted. “I think we should let the battle roll on and, on March 3, let’s see how it comes out.”