Volsky on “Chamber’s Election ‘Forum’ A Bust”
March 31, 2011 2 Comments
CHAMBER’S ELECTION “FORUM” A BUST
In more than 50 years as a journalist, I have attended and watched on TV close to 100 national, state and local political debates. The one Tuesday evening at the University of Miami Cosford Cinema, that “featured” eight candidates for two Coral Gables commission seats and three others vying for the job of mayor, was among the worst, if not the worst.
Given the depth of financial and ethical problems facing Coral Gables, which is yet to fully recover from the disastrous administration of Mayor Don Slesnick and former city manager David Brown (who retired in disgrace but with a golden parachute), the Tuesday debate was, seemingly on purpose, bland, uninformative and boring.
The culprits: the debate’s principal sponsor, the Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce (which called the event a “forum”), and its moderator Rick Hirsch, the Managing Editor of the Miami Herald. Hirsch didn’t put his best foot forward: to the palpable annoyance of a fairly numerous and clearly offended public, he arrived at Cosford about 30 minutes late because, as a Chamber underling explained, of the rain. That lame excuse produced a moment of hilarity since everyone in Cosford knew the rain was actually a barely-felt intermittent drizzle.
More important, sponsoring a serious political debate is a serious matter because debates are time-honored parts of the democratic process. A debate sponsor has to be scrupulously impartial and must make every effort to provide voters the opportunities to directly ask candidates relevant questions; that didn’t happen on Tuesday.
Richard Olsen, former Bal Harbour mayor and attorney, wanted to do that and came to Cosford accompanied by his son, a Coral Gables businessman. Earlier this month, in a Channel0 10 TV interview Olsen called commission candidate Brad Rosenblatt, “a thief.” He intended to repeat the accusation, produce documents explaining his case, and hear Rosenblatt’s response. Olsen wasn’t allowed to speak. Sidney Kolber, 87, a retired Coral Gable resident whom Rosenblatt gave a large bad check, couldn’t challenge that candidate either.
Before the debate, June Thomson, a publicist who works in the Rosenblatt campaign, strongly challenged me for having recently written that Rosenblatt was 27 when he filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy – which involved $880,000 in unpaid debts. He was only 22, she affirmed. I double-checked, and June was wrong. According to the Miami-Dade police records, Rosenblatt’s date of birth is 01/13/1975. The U.S. Bankruptcy Court states that he filed for Chapter 7 on 07/31/2002, which made him 27 year and 6 months old at the time.
Since RosenbIatt states that he is a property owner and a part owner of a “prosperous business” located at 2700 Ponce de Leon Blvd., I asked June Thomson for a list of his properties as soon as possible. Thirty hours later, the list hasn’t been mailed, nor several telephone calls to his office.
A self-respecting moderator studies the debate issues that most concern citizens so that his or her questioning elicits as much information as possible. That didn’t happen Tuesday either. Instead, before the event got underway, the public had to endure the Chamber’s self-congratulatory panegyric read (twice) by the organization’s flak. For five minutes that man extolled the virtue of the Chamber, of BID (the Business Improvement District) and of the Miracle Mile streetscape plan both enthusiastically supports. Since the plan continues to be highly controversial, especially its questionable $16 million funding, and candidates were expected to be asked about it, praising it at the outset of the “forum” was highly inappropriate.
Following that political blunder, the flak gave effusive thanks to the Turner Construction company, the debate’s other sponsor. Turner had funded refreshments outside the cinema and placed on a table nearby a hundred of its propaganda coffee mugs to be taken home as the debate’s memento. So much for the Chamber’s understanding of the seriousness of our political process and its relevance in Coral Gables polity.
There was more. Under the Chamber-imposed format, candidates had one minute for their opening statement, one minute for closing remark and one minute to answer questions supposedly submitted by the public. Hirsch began in that fashion, then in the middle of the boring session he suddenly reduced the answering time to 30 seconds. His unilateral change made the “forum” a laughable exercise and the astonished public gasped in disapproval.
The tenor of Hirsch’s questions appeared tailored to the Chamber’s agenda: the Miracle Mile streetscape, how promote the city and bring more business to its downtown, what to do about better schools, what incentives should the city offer companies to make them rent offices here, and one on.
While Hirsch did ask the candidates to opine on the city’s thorny pension issue, he did not seek their views on the equally relevant Biltmore controversy, on the lack of transparency, or about huge and wasteful legal expenses and the waste in general. Inquired after the debate why he didn’t pose at least the Biltmore question, Hirsch merely smiled and shrugged.
Neither in the first, commission part of the “forum,” nor in the supposedly more important second, mayoral debate new grounds were broken. Ennui prevailed. Hirsch did not ask incisive questions, and there were no follow ups, which well-informed professional moderators routinely request panelists to answer.
In the final account, it was the disappointed Coral Gables public who gave the Chamber of Commerce and Hirsch a clear mark of disapproval. When the moderator’s “thank you” ended the tepid forum, a two thirds of the original audience had already left the Cosford cinema.