Few voters hear Columbia Council quiz candidates

Sparsely attended forum held for staff, official says

Some office-seekers confused

October 10, 2002|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

The Columbia Council has twice quizzed candidates for public office on Columbia-related issues but hardly anyone from the general public heard the questions or the answers because a public invitation was not issued.

Only a handful of voters learned about the sessions and showed up, but the discussions last month with candidates for county and state offices representing Columbia were still conducted formally - with time cards, name tags and microphones.

"I didn't understand why we were all there, why they had done it," said Democratic Del. Shane Pendergrass, who is running for re-election. "It continues to puzzle me."

The council - which doesn't endorse candidates - usually meets with elected officials after they're in office, not during elections.

When Pendergrass was notified about the meetings last month, she called Columbia Association President Maggie J. Brown and asked her, "Why are you doing this? Is this really useful?"

Brown said the meetings stemmed from the newly formed advocacy panel's project to learn where the candidates stand on some Columbia issues. She said the meetings were for the council, not the general public.

The Columbia Association did not issue a news release because the events were quickly put together, but the meetings were publicized on the association's weekly calendars, and information was sent to villages, Brown said. (Villages have also held public forums, during which candidates fielded questions from the audience).

Still, the council's meetings were sparsely attended, with Columbia Association staff and council members far outnumbering the few voters who showed up.

"There was no public," said Kenneth S. Ulman, Democratic County Council candidate from west Columbia. "There was a guy who works for [Republican candidate for county executive] Steve Adler in the audience, my wife and a friend."

Incumbent Del. Frank S. Turner, a Democrat, said the number of people in the audience did not appear to be any more or less than the number that is usually at Columbia Council meetings, which is very few. He said the council should be given "an A for effort" because "they're kind of the new kids on the block when it comes to forums."

"I think if they have forums years from now, I'm sure that they will be very aware of how important it is to invite the press and really broadcast it so more people from the community can also come," Turner said.

Columbia Council Chairman Miles Coffman said he did not think it was an oversight to not publicize the meetings more effectively. He said the point of the meetings was for the candidates to understand Columbia's concerns and issues, and so the council could get the candidates on the record.

"It wasn't that we tried to hide it," Coffman said.

Columbia Council member Joshua Feldmark of Wilde Lake said that even if a crowd did not show up, council members were there representing their villages.

"We each represent our constituents and spend a lot of time talking to our constituents about what's important to them," he said. "If we're there, that's important."

Incumbent County Councilman Guy J. Guzzone, a Democrat, said he did not expect a large audience at the forum because he has been at few with big turnouts. He said the meeting was the council's "show to run, to the degree they wanted to publicize it or not publicize it."

"All I know is that I was asked, and when asked I make an effort to show up at all these forums," he said.

The Columbia Council asked each candidate three questions, with no follow-up questions or discussion. The advocacy committee, formed last year, drafted questions that were based on issues that village boards, association staff and advisory committees had wanted the committee to work on.

The questions to candidates for state office included how the candidate would promote linking Columbia to regional transportation and which funds the candidate would help the association access for protection and preservation of lakes or open space.

The questions to the county candidates centered on Columbia's revitalization and possible partnerships between the county and Columbia.

Ulman said he was disappointed there wasn't a chance to engage in a conversation with the council, but he said he looks forward to future dialogues.

"I'm glad for them to have an opportunity to know what I care about," he said. "But it is nice to get a chance to talk to the public as well."

Joan Lancos, west Columbia Republican County Council candidate, said she did not prepare advance comments because she expected the forum to take on a conversational tone. She said the meetings would have been more effective if all Columbia Council members and all county candidates were included.

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