Creekside Festival Slyness: How the Chamber Discriminates Against Non-Party Candidates
FlaglerLive | September 19, 2011
See a Monday update at the foot of the article.
The Flagler County Commission is trying to arbitrate what has all the appearances of sneaky politicking on public grounds by the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce at the upcoming Creekside Festival on Oct. 8 and 9. The commission punted on Monday evening, opting to wait before making a decision even as two of its members declared themselves very uncomfortable with what the chamber calls “policy,” and what two political candidates are calling outright discrimination in favor of the chamber’s own favored candidate.
The Creekside Festival at the Princess Place Preserve drew some 17,000 people last year. It’s a great place to see and be seen, particularly by politicians. The festival did wonders for Milissa Holland’s name recognition when she first ran for the county commission and worked hard to differentiate herself from her father, Jim, who’d been a Palm Coast city councilman. She had a booth at the festival.
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The festival is run by the chamber. The county is intimately involved. It helps plan the event and coordinates its logistics. The county collects rental fees. It also collects 25 percent of festival revenue, which includes a per-car entry fee ($3 last year) and revenue from vendor sales and the rental of booths to dozens of organizations or merchants. The money helps supplement Princess Place’s budget.
The Democratic Party, the Republican Party and the Tea Party will each have a booth at the festival.
Dennis Cross and Bill McGuire are running in the Palm Coast city election set for Nov. 8. It’s a non-partisan election. They’re running under the No Party Affiliation banner, or NPA. (Independents are the fastest-growing voting registrants of the past dozen years or so.) They each applied for a booth and were ready to pay the fee.
Doug Baxter, the chamber president, told them they couldn’t have a booth.
They could visit the festival. They could sit under one of the other parties’ tents. They could walk around and talk to people. But they could not distribute literature, as political candidates like to do.
McGuire is running against Holsey Moorman for the District 1 seat. Moorman is a Democrat whose volunteers have used Democratic Party booths at other events to campaign for him. Cross is running against Jason DeLorenzo for the District 3 seat. DeLorenzo is a also Democrat whose volunteers have done the same.
One more thing. DeLorenzo is married to Rebecca DeLorenzo, one of his most hard-working volunteers—and the vice president of the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce.
To Cross, whose candidacy was already almost railroaded once by Palm Coast’s redistricting process, and McGuire, think something stinks at the Creekside Festival: that the chamber is using its muscle and thinly veiled claim to be unaffiliated with any candidates to push at least one candidate in particular, if not two. Cross and McGuire took their case to the Flagler County Commission Tuesday evening (McGuire, who’s in St. Louis, did so by way of his campaign manager, John Ruffalo).
“The Chamber of Commerce staff has a right to support any candidate they want. They do not have a right to deny me an equal opportunity to meet voters and listen to their concerns,” Cross told the commission. “The policy must be for all or none.”Ruffalo, speaking for McGuire, noted—as did Cross—the dismal showing at the polls in last week’s mayoral election in Palm Coast, when less than 11 percent of registered voters cast a ballot—the worst turnout in Palm Coast’s dozen-year history. “You elected Commissioners especially know that enabling registered voters to personally meet and chat with candidates is a great way to substantially increase voter turnout,” Ruffalo said. Clearly Palm Coast has a non-partisan government so voters will be encouraged to forget political parties and vote for the candidates they deem best suited to represent them. Bill and Dennis will equally represent all independent, republican and democrat residents. In fact Bill McGuire’s campaign stresses that before voting, he always will ask “How is that best for all our residents.” (See the Ruffalo-McGuire statement in full below.)
McGuire didn’t buy the argument, put forth by Baxter, that space was limited in a 1,450-acre spread, or that the county had no say in the matter. “By more-than-coincidence, getting away with this insult to all local residents, including Chamber members, this “unwritten Chamber law” will substantially benefit the candidate husband of the Executive Vice President of the Flagler Chamber of Commerce.”
Then it was Baxter’s turn. “The Creekside festival is a festival for families, for arts and crafts, and not for politicians. We have allowed the three—the tea party, the Democrats and the Republicans because they are non-profit organizations to have a booth out there. We do have limited space based on electricity and requirements of bathrooms out there. We are trying not to make the Creekside Festival a campaign venue.” He added: “We do not want to get in a situation where people are saying things about the Chamber that are untrue.”
But the chamber’s own application of its policy invites questions. Last year, it was difficult to make it into the festival grounds, or look around the festival, without seeing signs shilling for the defeat of Amendment 4, the so-called “hometown democracy” amendment that would have made it more difficult for local developers to win major land-use changes—and that the chamber opposed. The school board also had a booth to push its own tax-renewal initiative, as did the political parties.
Peterson’s claim that the county cannot get in the way of a private organization’s policies also raises questions by way of Peterson’s own qualifiers. The county cannot get in the way, Peterson said, as long as those policies “conform to all the county rules and regulations and don’t violate any other rules that might be state or federally required.” County rules forbid discrimination. And the federal rule in effect on public grounds in this case is the First Amendment, which has no greater application than in relation to political speech: when it is granted to some according to a certain standard—whether by booth, by tent or by megaphone—is cannot in any way be denied to others. If policies are written to that effect, the policies are in violation of the amendment.
McLaughlin made the point. “I’m a little uneasy with restricting political speech,” he said. “This is not like a church group rents Wadsworth Park and there’s an expectation that it’ll be limited to that church group. It’s not necessarily a public event, so they can go in, they can have prayer, they can have whatever symbols they need and they can do their thing. Now this event, on the other hand, is an event that the chamber in essence is renting Princess Place, but they are inviting the public to their event. It’s an open, public event. Am I right so far? Ok.” After a brief exchange clarifying the county’s involvement and cash take from the event, he added: “So here’s the rub. We’re getting a little something off that. We’re inviting the public. […] I’m a little uneasy with saying, you can all come but you can’t say whatever you want to say, and I’m a little uneasy about that.”
Commissioners Revels and Holland pointed out that the chamber’s policy is also contradictory. Baxter claims not to want families accosted by political campaigners. But denying candidates a booth of their own essentially forces them to walk the park, accosting others (albeit without literature, making verbal buttonholing even more likely) instead of having them sit in a booth, letting people come to them.
“So why don’t you create the ability to have one more booth that’s NPA?” Revels said, using the acronym for non-party affiliation. “And anybody can go there that wants to.”
“I’ve discussed it with staff,” Baxter said, “I’ve discussed it with the chairman of the board, and none of us want to do that.”
“I’m not comfortable with that. I don’t know that we can do that,” McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin and Holland supported Revels’ idea of having a non-party affiliation booth in the mix, but the commission, with Peterson on the others side and Commissioner George Hanns not making it clear where he stood, decided to delay a decision, essentially letting the chamber know that a majority of its members are uncomfortable with matters as they stand, and giving the chamber an opening to compromise.
Sept. 20 Update: Palm Coast City Council member Mary DiStefano this morning asked the council to send a letter to Doug Baxter and the Chamber of Commerce requesting that a non-party booth be added to the mix at the Creekside Festival. DiStefano spoke in strong terms against the prohibition in place preventing non-partisan candidates from having their own booth.
DeLorenzo on Monday said he had no objections to Cross and McGuire campaigning in any capacity at the festival, though he himself would be there not as a campaigner, but on the clock for the Home Builders Association, which is hosting another Green Expo at Creekside, as it did last year. “I understand where the policy was born out of because of the extraordinary number of candidates in 2008,” DeLorenzo said of the chamber’s policy on campaigners, “and I don’t think it went further than that. I don’t know why they would have even needed to think about it.” DeLorenzo conceded that the enactment of the same policy, in light of this year’s circumstances, may have lacked foresight.
John Ruffalo is the campaign manager for Bill McGuire, a candidate for District 1 in the Palm Coast City Council election on Nov. 8. McGuire is running against Holsey Moorman. The election is non-partisan. McGuire was in St. Louis Monday evening. Ruffalo delivered the following remarks to the Flagler County Commission. The remarks are unedited.
I am John Ruffalo from Palm Coast. I’m also Bill McGuire’s campaign manager. Since Bill had to be up north this week, I’m representing him.
We all know voter turnout for Palm Coast’s mayoral election was awful. You elected Commissioners especially know that enabling registered voters to personally meet and chat with candidates is a great way to substantially increase voter turnout.
Creekside Festival at our Princess Place will be held just weeks before non-partisan early voting starts for two of Palm Coast’s Council positions. So non-partisan candidates Dennis Cross and Bill McGuire did the obvious and paid to jointly rent a booth space where they plan to meet-and-greet Palm Coast residents as non-partisan candidates. Each will occupy half of the space, but will share a banner with words like: Meet Non-Partisan City Council Candidates.Clearly Palm Coast has a non-partisan government so voters will be encouraged to forget political parties and vote for the candidates they deem best suited to represent them. Bill and Dennis will equally represent all independent, republican and democrat residents. In fact Bill McGuire’s campaign stresses that before voting, he always will ask “How is that best for ALL our residents.”
Palm Coast became a City before Creekside Festival was started. So it should be no surprise to Chamber officers that City of Palm Coast candidates run for election as non-partisan.
How then is it logical that Chamber officers now claim they have an un-written law that non-partisan candidates for a non-partisan Palm Coast election are not welcome to meet potential voters – – unless they proclaim allegiance to a political party? With 1,450 acres there certainly is space for one or a dozen more booths.
The Chamber’s intent has to be to hurt Palm Coast’s non-partisan election format, at the same time it works to reduce voter turn-out to a non-partisan election.
Bill McGuire strongly asks: How is that best for ALL our citizens?
By more-than-coincidence, getting away with this insult to all local residents, including Chamber members, this “unwritten Chamber law” will substantially benefit the candidate husband of the Executive Vice President of the Flagler Chamber of Commerce.
Commissioners, you rented Princess Place to the Chamber evidently without approving all the rules they might selectively insist on. Please at least express your individual feelings about “How is that BEST for all of our citizens?” Thank you.
That was from Bill McGuire. Personally speaking, in football terms, what the Chamber of Commerce is doing is known as home cookin’. Thank you.