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When news events change an opinion column

The headline for this column originally read, "Dear LWV: Rules let housing candidate off the hook." That had to change in midmorning Wednesday, March 24, when incumbent Housing Authority candidate Nicholas Mitropoulos agreed to take part in Candidates' Nightwhen incumbent Housing Authority candidate Nicholas Mitropoulos agreed to take part in Candidates' Night. The column had argued that the local league should relax its rules and allow both candidates, in part because challenger Kelda Fontenot wants to attend. The substance of this column remains, because I think the league needs ro find a way to be more flexible.Arlington League of Women Voters logo

Under rules guiding the League of Women Voters of Arlington, one of the March 31 event's co-sponsors, opponents may not join the discussion if one decides not to come.

In this case, that is Mitropoulos, who cites a "work conflict" as the reason for not attending. He declined to provide details or say why the conflict could not be put off in favor of the annual political event. "It is a business commitment, and I cannot move it," he wrote.Envision Arlington

The league sent invitations in February.

Indeed, the incumbent last participated in the annual political sounding board two decades ago, in 2001, the first year he ran for board.

In email exchanges with YourArlington, Mitropoulos, 64, confirmed how long it has been since his only appearance. He added: "[S]ince then, I did not have any major opponents, so I felt it was best to give the time to the contested races."

He wrote that he would work with a cable station ACMi "in lieu of not attending the LWV event." He has also scheduled Zoom appearances, included here >> 

Local LWV responses

Freelance writer Melanie Gilbert asked Carolyn Parsons, Arlington LWV co-president, about the impact of league policies on Housing Authority participation March 31.

Parsons left a voicemail saying, “Mr. Mitropoulos has declined the league's invitation to appear .... Therefore, the forum between the Housing Authority candidates will not be held."

She added that holding a debate with just the challenger present would jeopardize the local league's nonprofit funding.

Later, in a phone interview, she said: “In a contested election, at least two candidates must be present. Our policy has been in effect for decades of not hosting an 'empty-chair' debate.”

In a call to the state LWV, Taylor Grenga pointed to the state rules on such a debate. See Page 3, Section F of the policy >>

Parsons confirmed that if there were three candidates, and Mitropoulos declined, the debate would go forward.

The league's rules for forums and debates, updated in 2019, poses this question: "What if a candidate refuses to debate when there are only two candidates?" The options for state and local races recommend that a debate NOT be held. The rules show NOT in uppercase.

The rules include a caveat to that: "Leagues should decide if there are ways within the community, through the media, coalition partners or others, to encourage that a debate go forward and urge the reluctant candidate to appear."Asked about that option, Parsons said the local local league has never pursued it.

Let this column serve as that "encouragement."

AFR support

For potential support, YourArlington reached out to the 2-year-old grass-roots group Arlington Fights Racism (AFR). After all, it has endorsed Fontenot. Asked to provide a statement, the AFR Steering Committee wrote:

"As regards the League of Women Voters' upcoming Virtual Candidate’s Night, Ms. Fontenot has the same right as any other candidate for major office to show the audience her qualifications for the office to which she aspires. And if her opponent refuses to engage with her in the traditional debate format, then the league should use the discretion it has in local races to let her present herself there and speak to the audience directly."

Why should the league reward a poor record of public participation and keep from the public eye a candidate who wants to be heard?

Looking at the last 20 years

Consider what available data show. In the absence of LWV records about Candidates' Night, YourArlington searched its own archives (2006 to present) and found a consistent theme: When they were able, candidates avoided appearing.

  • In 2010, James Doherty, running unopposed for assessor, was invited but chose not to attend. 
  • In a 2011 report of the event, no mention is made of Mitropoulos, unopposed for Housing Authority, except that he did not respond to the league's request for a statement for its annual guide. 
  • In 2012, Daniel Brosnan, unopposed for a seat on the Housing Authority, did not attend.
  • In 2013, Richard Murray and M. Bridgett James, candidates for seats on the Housing Authority, did not show up, citing prior commitments.
  • In 2015, not attending were two unopposed candidates Robert Greeley, who was seeking to fill the assessor term of Doherty, who resigned the preceding May, and Joseph S. Daly, who seeks to fill a five-year term on the Housing Authority following the resignation of James.
  • In 2016, two unopposed incumbents were not present Greeley, seeking reelection to a three-year seat on the Board of Assessors, and Mitropoulos, seeking a five-year Housing Authority seat.
  • In 2017, two other candidates seeking reelection were invited but were not on Town Hall stage. Mary Winstanley O'Connor, longtime member of the Board of Assessors, said she was prepared to speak, but because of a mix-up, she was in the audience. Stephanie Lucarelli, seeking reelection as town clerk, a position she had held since 2010, wrote that an injury prevented her from attending.
  • In 2020, Candidates' Night was not held because of the pandemic. Had it occurred, first-time Housing Authority candidate Jo Anne Preston said she wanted to participate, but Daly, the incumbent, declined, citing his wife's health. ACMi later offered both interviews about their candidacies; only Preston agreed and was interviewed.

On the other hand

Countering these examples of fearing to participate is Patricia Worden. A member of the Housing Authority board from 2001 to 2007, appointed by governors Swift and Romney, she told YourArlington: "I believe I have attended every LWV debate over the many years in which I have served Arlington."

She has been endorsed by Arlington Fights Racism.

In a report about the Housing Authority that YourArlington published in January, the league expressed hope "that a few citizens in Arlington will be interested in running for the Housing Authority board." Now that a candidate has stepped up, the league should let both candidates be heard.

Envision Arlington and the League of Women Voters of Arlington present candidates' night, set for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 31.

Watch it on ACMi here >>

March 5, 2021: OPINION: Arlington Housing Authority isn’t powerless
Jan. 15, 2021: League describes Housing Authority opportunity

This viewpoint was published Wednesday, March 24, 2021. Freelancer Melanie Gilbert helped with the reporting for this column.

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