Grading the Candidate Forum
DESERT HOT SPRINGS, CA – A candidate’s forum held last Thursday was a disappointment. Voters looking for answers and a robust examination of issues facing Desert Hot Springs did not find it despite the even being billed as one that would ask tough questions.
Where to begin? The beginning is as good a place as any.
The rules established for the forum by the Chamber of Commerce, the forum organizer, locked down the candidates and any hope of meaningful issue examination.
With no exchange between candidates and no follow up, candidates were left to simply regurgitate their campaign trail pitches. The forum was little more than a live commercial for each of the candidates. Voters will get as much from the candidate’s campaign mailers.
That’s too bad. With experienced and credible moderators (Steve Kelly of KPSI and Erica Felci of The Desert Sun newspaper) the clamped-down format could have been overcome. All Kelly and Felci had to do was ask some follow-up questions. Even where the situation clearly called for it, they didn’t.
For example, which crime statistics forwarded by the candidates at the forum are accurate? One set of candidates want us to believe crime in the city is down 47%. Yvonne Parks and Scott Matas provided those stats.
On the other side of the crime stat question, Joe McKee said the crime stats show a 4% increase in violent crime and a 2% decrease in non-violent crime. McKee said he got his numbers from the Unified Crime Report compiled by the FBI.
Which are the real stats? The voters don’t know.
Steve Kelly must have been looking at the same statistics as Joe McKee because one of his prepared questions asked specifically how candidates respond to crime statistics showing a 2% increase in violent crime.
Yvonne Parks reply was that she stands by her 47% number and she challenged anyone to look it up. Everyone in the room heard the wide disparity.
Giving Yvonne Parks and Scott Matas the benefit of the doubt, let’s say that somewhere the 47% number exists. Kelly or Felci should have followed up on Yvonne Parks statement that anyone can look it up and asked Yvonne Parks for her source.
There is also disparity on the number of police officers on the street. Again, Yvonne Parks and Scott Matas (and we have to presume their slate partner Jan Pye agrees), stated that Desert Hot Springs has 34 officers. McKee challenged that number saying there are no more than 27 and the department is struggling to get to even 29 officers.
Again, the disparity was out there. The moderators just let it pass.
What is true?
There were some good questions asked, most notably in what was called a lightening round. How much would you pay a new city manager? Will you vote to raise taxes? The question missing from the debate was about the budget. Does Desert Hot Springs have a budget deficit and if so, how big of a problem is it?
Those paying attention prior to the candidate forum know that on the subject of the budget there is a wide difference in the candidate’s positions regarding the budget deficit.
Yvonne Parks, Scott Matas and Jan Pye do not see the deficit as a significant concern. Each have said alternatively that the city can grow its way out of the budget deficit, that it will not result in any reduction in city services and no tax increase will be needed to overcome the deficit.
The challengers, Adam Sanchez and John-Paul Valdez for mayor and Joe McKee and Robert Bentley for council view the deficit as very serious, even leading to potential insolvency for the city (Valdez used the word bankrupt in the forum). McKee identifies the problem as very serious but solvable with much needed spending cuts.
That is a wide disparity. So which is it?
A candidate forum is supposed to provide clarity on such issues. If the voters in attendance and watching on the internet hoped to find that clarity on the budget deficit issue through the candidate forum their hopes were dashed.
There was no drilling down on the budget question – or the wildly disparate positions of the candidates regarding it.
If we are to grade each of the participants in the forum, the Chamber as the organizer gets the lowest mark. It gets some credit for the energy and effort it took to put on a forum. That’s called an “E” for effort. Effort, however, is not enough. The Chamber gets a C-.
Steve Kelly and Erica Felci did not break through the information impasse that was created by the Chamber rules. They did come up with some interesting questions. But as seasoned journalist more should be expected of them. They should have followed up, especially where the candidates where the candidates offered such wildly different information. Give Kelly and Felci a grade of B-.
The candidates also get a B-. One of them could have easily earned an A by breaking the format to ask a candidate to verify there statements. Doing so would have been against the Chamber’s forum rules that candidates were not to address other candidates but so what. One of them could have shined by breaking through the superficial discussion. None did.
That last point causes us to reevaluate our position on the Chamber’s grade. For setting up a candidate forum with rules that only allowed for superficial discussion of important issues the Chamber gets a D.