UNION, NJ — A change in local television station TV34’s policy now prohibits political debates, including the Board of Education and Township Committee forums that had been scheduled for later this month, a move that has upset residents.
The debates are hosted by the League of Women Voters annually however, according to a letter from municipal attorney Daniel Antonelli, the organization contributed to the conflict.
“In prior years, the township has encountered difficulty with the LWV who, according to their policies, will not allow a candidate who is running unopposed to be present at the debate,” Antonelli said in an Oct. 3 letter to LocalSource.
Michele Cerrato Mannino, the LWV voter service co-chairwoman for the Union area, stated that there hasn’t been an unopposed local candidate in many years.
“It seems as though he was stating from an old problem, where we had a candidate who ran unopposed,” Mannino said in a phone interview with LocalSource on Oct. 11. “To have a debate, you need two sides. The unopposed candidate was still interviewed and allowed to be present at the debate, they just had to be in the crowd.”
The Oct. 9 Union Township Committee meeting drew several residents who voiced their frustration about the new policy.
“With the whole idea of TV34 not airing candidate debates, a few words come to mind. And those would be transparency, openness, candidness, and of course, integrity,” resident Daryn Martin said during the public forum portion. “These things seem to be nonexistent at times in this town.”
Martin, a five-year resident of Union, also warned the committee members that they’re “being watched” and need to act with integrity at all times.”
The resolution to bar the debates was passed at the Township Committee’s Aug. 28 meeting, but Mannino wasn’t made aware of the policy change until after scheduling the BOE debate for Oct. 22. She sent out the original invitations to candidates on Sept. 6, but had to issue revised invitations Sept. 23, letting all the candidates know the debate wouldn’t be televised.
“I called the station manager after hearing the news and he couldn’t give me a straight answer,” Mannino said. “We’re just completely saddened by the whole thing and to cancel it for what we see as two not legitimate reasons is heartbreaking.”
Mannino and the LWV still planned to host the debate and livestream it on social media, but not enough candidates wanted to participate in it.
“We just needed one more candidate,” she stated. “We worked so hard to get it broadcast and that’s all we needed.”
Also addressed in Antonelli’s letter were the number and types of questions being asked during LWV debates. His letter stated that, “the township has encountered debates that led to purposeful selection of questions based upon the number of questions submitted by the individuals in attendance. This allowed only certain issues to be addressed.”
As stated in a copy of the station’s policy and procedures, obtained by LocalSource, “public issue forums on UNIONTV 34 and 36 shall offer a balanced perspective on the issues.”
According to Mannino, the debate questions are only screened for duplicity and offensive language.
“We have a nonpartisan moderator from a different township each year,” she said. “We can’t have multiple questions regarding taxes, so we screen the questions so other issues are addressed.”
In lieu of hosting televised debates, the station will now provide three minutes of airtime to all political candidates.
“I therefore encourage the candidates for the Union Board of Education to contact TV34’s station manager to arrange a mutually convenient date and time to provide their three-minute position statement,” Antonelli wrote in his letter.
In addition to Martin, other residents also expressed anger about the change during the public comment portion of the Oct. 9 meeting, including Paul Casey, a former BOE candidate, who said he believes school board elections shouldn’t be included in the policy change.
“School board elections are nonpartisan, meaning they are not political, so how does this policy apply?” Casey asked. “You’re setting a poor example to the young people in this community by trying to silence these candidates.”
Other residents were concerned about voter education.
“I’m a college student that is away in Boston and I’m going to vote,” Sienna Bucu said. “Since I can’t be home, I rely on these televised debates to educate myself on who I will be voting for.”
Mannino said the change has placed Union residents at a disadvantage, saying, “The people who suffer the most are the voting people of Union. The public deserves to know what these candidates have to say.”
After closing the public comment section of the meeting, Antonelli addressed the gathering, saying, “What I hear is that there’s a difference of opinion with regard to the airing of the debate. Thank you everyone for your comments and we will take all of this into consideration.”
Those who voiced their opinions were not pleased when their concerns weren’t directly addressed.
“We’re the taxpayers so we have the right to get answers from our elected officials,” Martin said after public comment.
“I think the policy is indefensible and quite frankly cowardly,” said Jason Krychiw in an interview with LocalSource after the meeting. “We have hot-button issues and they’ll be aware that it’s a problem and then they won’t address anything when we have the floor to speak.”
Krychiw, a former candidate for the Union Township Committee and BOE, said that having a free, public platform helped get his message out to the public.
“When I was a candidate, I didn’t have a lot of money to send out mailers, so I relied a lot on these free public forums,” he added.