Candidates, non-profit denied political forum at Sebastian City Hall

SEBASTIAN – A third Sebastian City Council Candidate forum will not be held within Sebastian City Hall, nor will it be aired on the city’s government channel.

Three of four council members, including Mayor Richard Gillmor, declined to second Councilman Eugene Wolff’s motion to approve the request – bringing the item to discussion. Saying that he feared the application was a “last minute political ploy” by two candidates seeking election, Vice Mayor Jim Hill excused himself from the dais. He, and Gillmor, are seeking re-election.

“The behavior and abuses that were done from the dais was rude, disrespectful and almost  blasphemous,” Rev. Cindy Falco, of Open Arms and Open Hearts Ministry, wrote Wednesday night on an article posted to VeroNews.com. That article, though not related to this issue, had to do with the selection of the mayor after the last election.  “I feel that because we are a Christian ministry, we were denied. This creates a problem for any other Christian churches and ministries that have a 501(c)3 to host any events political or otherwise at a City Hall Venue.  This is discrimination against the church.”

Council candidates did not raise the issue of the non-profit being a Christian organization. Instead, Councilwoman Andrea Coy noted that the organization no longer appears to be a local non-profit.

Only the ministry’s treasurer, Vicky Lada, remains in Sebastian. And, according to city records, the organization is now based in Bradenton, Fla.

Coy said, given those details, the group is no longer local, “in my mind.”

“I’m a little nervous where this discussion is going,” Wolff said several minutes into questioning from Coy of Lada.

Wolff noted how many other candidate forums are going on – and how most are in Vero Beach.

Coy pointed out that the other forums are not being held in governmental chambers or at a cost to the government. Instead, forum hosts are paying for their space at other venues – including the Vero Beach High Performing Arts Center and the Emerson Center.

“The debate is use of public space” and staff time, Coy said.

When Lada approached the podium to answer questions from council, she found it difficult to answer.

Wolff asked her who would moderate the forum. At first, Lada couldn’t recall the name, but with help from candidate Damien Gilliams, she said Colman “Cal” Stewart.

According to city records, and City Manager Al Minner after the meeting, candidates Joe Scozzari and Gilliams approached his office Friday, seeking permission to use the Council Chambers and broadcast system for a candidate forum.

Without reviewing the policy, Minner told the candidates that they could use the chambers. However, if they wanted to broadcast the forum, they would need the council’s approval.

After that discussion, Minner was shown a copy of the city’s policy that states in part that such broadcasts must be done so through local non-profits in a non-biased, non-partisan way.

Minner said after the council meeting that given Scozzari and Gilliams’ involvement, “it’s fair to question” the non-profit’s being non-bias or non-partisan.

“They were orchestrating that,” Minner said, referring to the candidates.

Minner said that, he had informed Scozzari and Gilliams of the policy and told them they would need to find a local non-profit to sponsor the debate.

He gave them until the end of Monday to do so. On Tuesday, they presented Open Arms and Open Hearts Ministry, whose founder, Rev. Cindy Falco, once lived in Sebastian but has since relocated.

During the questioning, both Gilliams and Scozzari approached the podium to attempt to answer the questions being asked of Lada. The pair was asked to sit down.

“You don’t need to be badgering her,” Gilliams said to Coy at one point during the questioning.

“I’m not badgering her,” Coy responded.

When asked about the format for the forum, Lada said that it would be open to the public. After Gilliams whispered to Lada, she told the council that there would be three reporters who would ask their own questions of the candidates and then the candidates would be able to ask questions of each other.

As he was being escorted out by a Sebastian Police Officer, Gilliams said that they had planned to have a reporter from VeroNews.com, Hometown News and The Press Journal participate in asking questions.

After Wolff’s motion to approve for discussion failed to garner a second and died on the floor, Gilliams began shouting from the audience that the voters would remember this.

“That speaks volumes,” Gilliams said, adding that he and other candidates would boycott the two Sebastian candidate forums – leaving just the incumbents to field questions.

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