Political partisanship eked its way into what had been planned to be a League of Women Voters-sponsored candidates forum this week at the Sumner School District administration building.
Five candidates who are running for Sumner City Council and mayor seats in the Nov. 5 general election sent letters to the league and declined to attend based on fears the forum would be “filled with too much hostility and bias to be productive,” according to a message from Mayor Dave Enslow.
In a letter sent to Lyz Kurnitz-Thurlow, the Pierce County-Tacoma League’s voters services co-chair, Enslow thanked the organization for the work it does to educate and inform voters in an objective and professional manner.
“We are grateful for the service you provide,” Enslow said. “However, through no fault of your own, we do not feel the proposed forum in Sumner will be able to meet the high standards of a typical League of Women Voters forum.”
Enslow wrote that the candidates received an invitation from Melony Pederson, an individual who lost during the primary election against two of the invited candidates in August.
“Clearly this does not produce a level of confidence in the objectivity of the event or playing field,” Enslow said. “Failing to make it past the primary, she then hosted the campaign kickoff for another candidate invited to the event. We believe the genesis for this event was politically motivated and driven by ulterior motives.”
Pederson said she was not motivated by Nancy Dumas, a candidate who is running against Enslow for mayor, to approach the league about sponsoring and moderating a forum. She said she did not host a campaign kickoff meeting for Dumas but offered her house as a volunteer open house to help Dumas get her campaign organized.
Dumas was the only Sumner candidate who agreed to attend the forum.
“Nancy (Dumas) has had absolutely no organizational part in this, to avoid this exact situation,” Pederson said.
Pederson said the only previous forum to include Sumner council candidates was one sponsored by the Puyallup-Sumner Chamber of Commerce last month, and it focused more on economic development and catered to chamber members, she said.
“I wanted there to be an opportunity for candidates to come answer general questions from the public,” Pederson said. “There was clearly a need to have a forum.”
Pederson said the candidates’ defiance to attend marginalizes voters and goes beyond the definition of democracy.
“I couldn’t be more disappointed how it’s turned out,” she said.
Enslow, who represented the five candidates in his letter to the league, wrote Pederson sent information about the format only to Dumas.
Kathy Hayden, who is running for Council Position 2, said the league attempted to invite candidates a week after Pederson’s attempt.
“It has deteriorated now to where it just can’t be fixed, and it’s too close to the election,” she said.
Hayden said the only notice she received from Pederson was an announcement that the league was moderating and sponsoring an event. Hayden said there was no information about a format or timetable.
Kurnitz-Thurlow said candidate Randy Hynek, who is running for Council Position 2, did not respond to the league’s invitation. Kurnitz-Thurlow said there was confusion that Pederson was sponsoring the forum, not the League of Women Voters.
On Oct. 3, the league sent a formal letter to invite candidates, and it outlined the ground rules. Enslow responded Oct. 8 with his letter and said Dumas’ supporters were stacking the audience and inviting only their allies.
“We have little faith that there will be room for undecided voters,” Enslow said.
Pederson attended the Oct. 7 council meeting to explain the forum would be a “free room.” She also said she sent the invitation to all the candidates with the same information at the same time.
“Candidates would have had opportunity to invite whomever they chose,” Pederson said.
Dumas said she is disappointed.
“This is an absolute travesty of democracy and steps on the voice of the citizens in a community where their (elected leaders) are supposed to be their voice,” she wrote in an email. “But the current (elected leaders) don’t care about their voice.”
Kurnitz-Thurlow said the situation is unfortunate.
“The League of Women Voters is exactly what Sumner needs, a non-partisan organization to do a forum,” she said.
Reporter Andrew Fickes can be reached at 253-552-7001 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @herald_andrew.