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Debate stirs controversy

It's hardly the Great Debate, but tonight's televised Hernando County Chamber of Commerce candidates forum already has stirred up more news than it's likely to do while it's going on. The forum also could force the Federal Communications Commission to make a ruling on what has been uncharted legal territory: whether a cable system that broadcasts a program produced outside its studio must permit equal access to the air waves for candidates who choose not to participate.

Fourteen candidates were invited to attend tonight's forum.

But four _ Democratic state Sen. Karen Thurman, Democratic School Board candidates Susan Cooper and Diane Rowden, and Republican County Commission candidate Virginia Brown-Waite _ have decided not to attend.

Chamber executive vice president Doug Hafely said the forum, which will be broadcast on Ch. 12 beginning at 7 p.m., will take place anyway.

A spokeswoman for Thurman said the Dunnellon legislator, whose district includes part of Hernando County, has had other campaign forums booked for today since August.

The other three candidates have questioned the fairness of the forum, which allowed candidates to submit questions for their opponents five days in advance. The Chamber will add the candidates' suggestions to a pool of other possible questions.

"I think that was somewhat suspect," Brown-Waite said. "This is not the good old American apple pie way."

Brown-Waite said that by allowing questions to be submitted in advance, candidates favored by the Chamber could learn what those questions were and rehearse their answers.

"That accusation is ludicrous," Hafely responded.

"Even if these moronic statements made were true _ which is definitely not true _ what can we accomplish, (especially) with a little TV debate?"

Cooper, who is opposing Richard Drankwalter in the District 5 School Board race, said she and District 1 School Board candidate Diane Rowden also strongly objected to the presence of Coastal Engineering Associates president Cliff Manuel as moderator. Manuel is the chamber's president elect.

Cooper has criticized Coastal's study of Hernando High School, calling the company's proposals to renovate the aging high school overpriced.

Rowden was bothered by the fact that Manuel was a campaign contributor to her opponent's campaign. Campaign records show that Manuel has made two contributions totaling $450 to Beth Sanczel, the Republican District 1 contender. Rowden also questioned whether the Chamber had followed proper procedure in obtaining use of the School Board meeting room for the forum.

"I don't remember it coming up on the (School Board) agenda," she said.

Hafely said Manuel was moderating because Chamber president Morris Porton will not be in town tonight.

But Hafely rejected charges that Manuel could manipulate the forum.

"This is where it really gets amusing," he said. "All he (Manuel) will do is introduce the panel and the candidates _ then he sits there with his stopwatch.

"I think all of them are making hay while the sun shines and making totally unfounded charges."

Meanwhile Milton Gross, the chief of the fairness political branch of the Federal Communications Commission, said Monday that under normal commercial broadcast circumstances, the commission's equal access rule for political candidates would apply.

Even if candidates pull out of a debate for their own reasons, they must be granted an equal amount of air time later.

But in the case of cable television, that ruling only applies to cable companies that have exclusive editorial control over the program.

The Chamber forum will be broadcast from the local school district's own television studio.

"We've never defined whether a cable company has exclusive editorial control in that situation," he said.

Jack Luciani, the director of operations for CableVision of Central Florida, said Tuesday that the forum will be broadcast as promised.