League axes public queries at Whidbey forums

For the first time in at least 15 years, the public will not be quizzing Island County commissioner candidates during this year’s League of Women Voters primary political forums.

The league, a non-partisan group that works to inform and encourage public participation in government, has for decades held forums on ballot measures and public offices up for election.

For much of that time, people have had the chance to weigh in by asking questions. However, considering the number of candidates in this year’s primary races – nine total – the league decided to abandon the long-held tradition in the hope of providing a more effective and meaningful forum.

“We’re trying to make it more fair, we’re trying to make it more lively and we’re trying to see that all the issues identified by the league as important are addressed,” said Barbara Seitle, a member of the board of directors and the former president of the state league.

The older format of allowing questions from the crowd has resulted in a “limited scope of questioning, grandstanding, or ‘planted’ questions meant to benefit one candidate,” according to a league news release.

“Sometimes the questions are longer than the answers because people want to make more of a statement than ask a question,” Seitle said.

In the two forums planned for July, one for District 1 and one for District 2, candidates will be hit with about 10 total questions. They are the result of a request for questions from league members, Seitle said.

The league will also issue each candidate three “challenge” cards that can be used during the forum. Candidates always get the chance to address each question but league officials say there are times when the answer of one candidate leaves another squirming in their seat to respond.

“You know they want to say something so this is an opportunity to let them do that,” she said.

Candidates don’t seem to be raising any fuss over the changes. Jim Campbell, a Republican running for the District 2 seat, said he doesn’t have any heartburn over either change.

“I obviously want to know what the crowd thinks, but in a forum where time is a constraint, it doesn’t make a heck of a lot of difference to me,” Campbell said. “The questions will get asked.”

As for challenge cards, he said that was a good change. If people stray from the issues and get personal, he said he wouldn’t be surprised if candidates put them to use.

District 1 incumbent Helen Price Johnson, a Democrat, said she also has no qualms with either change.

“It’s always good to try something new,” she said.

However, Price Johnson noted that no format is perfect. Allowing questions from the crowd can lead to “statements” rather than questions while not allowing the public their time can lead to concerns of constituents being silenced.

Seitle said the policy changes are not yet permanent, that the league is trying them out for the primary forums. If it doesn’t work, the rules can always be changed back for the general election forums.

The District 2 forum will be held first, from 7 to 8:30 p.m., Wednesday, July 11, at the Oak Harbor Elks Lodge, 155 NE Ernst Street in Oak Harbor.

The District 1 forum will be held from 7 to 8:30 p.m., Thursday, July 19, at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Whidbey Island, 20103 Highway 525, two miles north Freeland.


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