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County TV keeps debate policy

The county's government-run television station has backed down from a policy change before it could affect next week's candidates debates, but not before it generated some heat.

Hillsborough Television, or HTV22, had decided to cancel debates that, in the case of candidates' absences, would have shown only a single candidate in attendance. Instead, the station reverted Monday to its traditional remedy: The solitary candidate will answer debate questions, creating a 14-minute solo performance.

With or without opponents present, the HTV22 appearances are coveted by low-budget candidates because of the free exposure. The station rebroadcasts each debate as often as every other day to all cable television subscribers.

The policy change would have allowed one candidate in a two-person race to keep his opponent off the air.

"I think we heard the concerns of the candidates out there," said Steve Valdez, the county's public information manager.

The station definitely heard from Dave Cutting, the Carrollwood Democrat seeking to oust County Commissioner Ken Hagan from his seat representing north Hillsborough County.

Hagan's campaign contributions total $145,816. Cutting's total $216. Cutting hopes to gain some equal footing via the HTV22 debate.

"It'd probably be worth about $12,000 to me," Cutting said.

But Cutting didn't expect Hagan to appear with him. The New Tampa Republican has missed most debates and forums since he entered politics.

So when Cutting learned of the station's new policy, he feared his own appearance would be canceled. "I politely protested that policy," Cutting said.

He also organized a sign-waving protest on Thursday afternoon on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, Hagan's home turf. On Monday, Cutting sent a letter to County Administrator Pat Bean, protesting the policy. And his campaign manager invited Hagan, in writing, to debate Cutting.

Even Hagan was sympathetic to Cutting's plight.

"I would certainly hope that they would give Mr. Cutting every opportunity to be seen and heard," Hagan said Monday.

But Hagan said he had no idea whether he would attend the televised debate; he hadn't checked his calendar.

"I've suspended every bit of campaigning in the last two weeks," Hagan said. "We've just been slammed with storm-related issues."

In previous years, HTV22 debates were managed by the League of Women Voters of Hillsborough County. But their partnership collapsed after the 2002 elections over several policy differences.

Mike Foerster, the county's director of communications, said the format was rigid and boring. "We needed to loosen it up for television."

That included the short-lived policy against single-candidate appearances.

"It never turned out very well," Foerster said. "There was nothing of value there. It was just a half-hour commercial for the candidate."

The change applied to debates taped in July for the primary elections. But it was tested only once.

County Commissioner Pat Frank, running for clerk of court, withdrew at the ninth hour from her forum with Helene Marks. Alternative taping times were suggested, but none worked. Marks already was en route to the studio. So she enjoyed a solo debate.

Valdez said that came into play in Monday's decision.

"I said, "Look at the Helene Marks thing. You set precedent,' " Valdez recounted. "We would certainly have a policy of not doing it, but this was not the time to start putting it together."

Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 269-5309 or coatssptimes.com.

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