Voters need to be able to see forums

The New Year is off to a wild start with folks fired up for the 2016 political season, especially in Costa Mesa.

Emails are flying this week as I hear from folks outraged that city leaders won't permit Costa Mesa TV to tape or air candidate forums.

Since 2010, CMTV has partnered with the Feet to the Fire Forum, taping and airing the program during campaign seasons.

Feet to the Fire's political talk show format, which I produce with Daily Pilot Executive Editor John Canalis and Voice of OC Publisher Norberto Santana Jr., has grown in popularity with audiences over the years — but not so much with candidates facing tough questions.

Though critics say they think the questioning shows bias, whether or not that's true, shouldn't candidates be ready to face that element too during campaigning?

After all, politics is a contact sport.

Hearing concerns about this in the community, I called Costa Mesa Mayor Steve Mensinger on New Year's Eve to discuss.

He told me the city would no longer be partnering with Feet to the Fire, saying if it did, it would have to do the same for all political forums.

And he and others feel the city shouldn't be involved in the campaign process.

He explained city attorneys advised the city could be liable if it were to pick and choose which forums to tape and air.

So the simple answer would be to just tape and air all of them, providing there aren't conflicting dates.

Apparently not.

Offering to pay CMTV to tape Feet to the Fire, Mensinger said that wasn't an option either, nor would be just handing over a DVD for a later airing.

Way back in the 1990s, when I was on local TV, cable companies had public access channels.

As part of their franchise agreements, these companies offered free public-access classes, and use of their video recording and editing equipment, to residents to produce and air programming.

Public access was an annoyance for cable employees, not to mention an expense for the companies.

So over time they got rid of these channels by turning them over to cities, making them municipal or government channels for city meetings and such.

With that history in mind, the city of Costa Mesa is fully within its right to air whatever it likes, or in this case doesn't, on its city-controlled channel.

But I don't buy for a minute the city officials' reasoning — the council banned the tapings Tuesday night — as to why they won't allow CMTV to tape or air any council forums for 2016.

In my opinion, this is just another way to control what residents see and hear regarding candidates — and indirectly control the process.

In my discussion with Mensinger, he did say something I agreed with, that with technology today most people don't watch these forums on television, but rather on YouTube and other online sites.

And he's right; that's been my experience over the years with Feet to the Fire.

But let's look at the bigger picture.

Feet to the Fire is supported by local news media, and we're already to talking to partners about resources to professionally tape and stream our 2016 shows, so what Costa Mesa does here really won't affect us. We also have the ability to publicize the shows online.

But smaller community forums organized by local resident groups may not have the resources to do this.

Where does that leave them?

Is someone really going to watch an hour or longer forum taped off someone's cell phone?

Though the most well-attended forums can garner attendance of several hundred residents, those numbers pale in comparison to the thousands who could be watching online or on TV.

In today's world, holding a forum without an electronic component is limiting to say the least.

Will this decision discourage smaller community forums questioning candidates?

I doubt it.

There's a passion that swells during campaign season that's unlike any other time, as residents see an opportunity to initiate real change.

And if the recent 6,900 petition signatures turned into City hall regarding voter approval for major developments in Costa Mesa is any indication, people are fired up for 2016.

The bottom line is that candidates need to answer not only journalists' questions, but residents' as well, if they plan to run for office.

Voters shouldn't only have to rely on controlled messages from candidates through campaign propaganda mailers.

Now more than ever voters need to know their candidates, seeing and hearing firsthand how they react to questioning under pressure, and understand their opinions and knowledge of city issues.

Community forums are the best way for residents to do that.

It'll be interesting to see if Newport's council follows suit with Costa Mesa. Because Mensinger is right: You can't pick and choose which forums to support.

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BARBARA VENEZIA lives in Newport Beach. She can be reached at bvontv1@gmail.com.

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A version of this article appeared in print on January 08, 2016, in the Local section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Voters need to be able to see forums" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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