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Newport debates televising the debates

In January I wrote about how the city of Costa Mesa wouldn't allow CMTV to tape or air council candidate forums this political season.

I offered that Feet to the Fire would pay CMTV for taping and airing, thinking the issue was purely financial. Mayor Steve Mensigner said that wasn't an option, and that he and others felt that the city shouldn't be involved in the campaign process.

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After Feet to the Fire, I suggested Mensinger's city come up with some sort of policy and criteria for taping and airing candidate forums going forward.

"Based upon how well Feet to the Fire was run, I would advocate nonpartisan, voter-friendly candidate forums on a selective basis," he said this week.

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Last Tuesday, Newport dove into some muddy waters attempting to create its own forum policy.

The official reasoning: the city has so many requests from organizations to have NBTV tape and air forums this season that the staff is looking to the council for direction.

How many?

Councilman Ed Selich tells me that of the approximately 12 candidate forums in the city, four requested and were taped — including Feet to the Fire, Speak up Newport, the West Newport Assn. and Chamber of Commerce forum.

Tara Finnegan, Newport's public information officer, says two more groups made requests, which were denied.

Feet to the Fire paid NBTV to tape the Costa Mesa forum because CMTV wasn't allowed to. The cost: about $1,000.

So for NBTV to tape 12 forums every two years it would run about $12,000. With a city budget of $278 million, why is Team Newport fussing over $12,000?

Councilman Keith Curry says the issue is politically motivated by Team Newport Councilman Scott Peotter and isn't really an issue.

Selich calls it "a problem we don't have."

Peotter complained about Curry's forum over the summer, inviting candidates Phil Greer, Fred Ameri and Will O'Neill — O'Neill didn't show — from his district and displayed the city seal, Curry says.

I called Peotter to discuss this. He didn't return my call.

I find it ironic Peotter' complained about the seal since historically he's been the biggest offender of using it inappropriately.

Curry says the proposed forum policy is "poorly written "and could be used to exclude groups like the Democratic and Republican women's organizations, Speak Up Newport and Feet to the Fire."

I agree.

Selich sits on the Speak up board and told me this wouldn't affect his group since its agreement with NBTV includes taping and airing of monthly meetings, and their candidate forum every two years is their September meeting.

Feet to the Fire, which is sponsored by the Daily Pilot, has partnered with both cities since 2010. This policy would exclude us from NBTV.

The forum criteria proposed requires organizations exist a minimum of 12 months prior to the forum, be nonpartisan, not endorse candidates during the election, not have a political action committee, be a group not an individual, and not be a for-profit company.

The policy also goes on to say "the content of the forum must be informational in nature and may not include advocacy for or against a particular candidate or ballot measure." And, of course, the city seal must be used in accordance with the municipal code.

Though I agree cities should have a forum policy, this one opens the door to political retribution by those in power, and silences important community dialogue.

Selich says Newport's agreement with NBTV and Newport Beach & Co includes providing 2,208 hours of "community events and activity programming a year."

Forums probably account for one half or 1% of TV time under this agreement, since forums come around every two years.

At the Tuesday council meeting, Curry and Selich, came out strongly against the policy.

Mayor Pro Tem and Team Newport's Kevin Muldoon defended it, saying it was "great" and "we don't need Neo Nazis and other political parties we can't control showing up" and using city money to promote a political agenda.

Geez, is there a Neo Nazi problem in Newport I don't know about? And political forums are by their very nature political, so this anti-agenda argument makes no sense to me.

Muldoon would support forums sponsored by AirFair, jwairfair.com/airfair.html and the Corona del Mar Residents Assn.

AirFair is a political action committee (PAC), exactly the type of group Muldoon's policy would ban from being televised.

This sort of nonsense is exactly what happens when people who've lived in Newport for a nano-second get elected with no institutional knowledge of the city.

Audience members called Muldoon on this. He backpedaled.

The council agreed to continue studying the issue.

This proposal is bad news, and nothing more than a messy attempt to control the 2018 election cycle when most of Team Newport is up for reelection.

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

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