The Peoria Unified School District governing board candidate forum planned by the Peoria Independent for Aug. 30 has been canceled.
Initially, the event was meant to be in-person, but that changed and moved toward cancelation for a number of reasons. Since I am in the business of transparency, here is why it was canceled.
About a week leading up to the event, I received safety concerns. These concerns were not from the candidates but from other sources. I also received indications the event could end up being more of a pep rally than a candidate forum, which should be devoid of cheering and applause throughout.
This was not surprising as over the last two years, issues related to education and Peoria Unified have become very heated, even to the point the district had to call police to a school board meeting to protect against an aggressive crowd, and for a period of time increased their police presence on site during school board meetings.
As the newsroom planned for candidate forums back in May, we discussed making school board forums virtual due to the lightning rod effect many school board meetings have been experiencing. It wasn’t just PUSD having issues as crowded meeting rooms were becoming the norm across the Valley. Local meetings have remained heated, but during the planning phase, I had wanted to give in-person a try.
In addition to the concerns about safety, there was also a growing concern I would have to deal with crowd control as attendees were expected to reach capacity.
When I first started organizing this forum, I had more help but as we have gotten closer I have had my help drop off. Ultimately, hundreds of people could show up to this event, and I alone didn’t want to be left having to deal with crowd control and anything unpredictable that may come with that.
We are a journalistic trust. To pay for security, we would need paid sponsorships for the event. To keep our unbiased, neutral platform, we did not want to have any conflicts of interest with paid sponsorships for political events. This played heavily into the decision to do the event virtual, as we probably should have done from the beginning.
With that in mind, I felt the best option was to make it an all-streaming event where the public could view the information at their convenience.
Shortly after I informed the candidates the forum would be virtual, I received a call from Traci Kinney saying she was with the campaigns of Heather Rooks and Devon Updegraff-Day. She urged me to keep the forum in-person and said she preferred to see the candidates' reactions and responses as they happened. We believe this could also be conveyed on video.
The focus of this forum is to provide an opportunity for voters to be informed about the school board candidates, especially those who have not made their decision on who they are going to vote for. As the moderator, it is also my goal to maintain the structure, safety, decorum and integrity of the forum so the goal of informing voters can be reached. I told her this, and that all those goals can easily be achieved virtually. Having it in-person opens it up to more unpredictability.
She continued to press me on it and offered to try and find security.
My goal is to give the three candidates an equal platform and as a result give voters the information they need to make a decision at the ballot box.
But she persisted. Against my best judgment, with the event barely three days away, I allowed her to see what she could find.
Less than an hour later, she came back with an offer of two uniformed Glendale Police officers to provide security for free.
Very shortly after that, I received an email from a man named Brian Morris, who ran for House of Representatives for Legislative District 27 in the Aug. 2 Republican primary and lost. He informed me he had immediately made reservations to secure police officers.
He stated in the email these are public forums and should be open to the public to meet the candidates, see real time body languages, emotions, and interactions with other candidates and other constituents.
He continued the political process is about engagement and that I was choosing to alienate the very idea of the forum.
“I would ask you to reconsider your position on locking out the public from physical attendance and understand the detriment it has on the process,” Morris said. “As you are aware, many school board meetings are attended by the elderly who either have no interest in, or have not learned, to handle meetings remotely. I, myself, have only used remote Zoom style meetings less than a handful of times and I am much younger and more technologically inclined than many voters in Peoria. You are also discriminating against a large population of concerned voters who are primarily Spanish speaking and whose culture is more inclined to attend physically, rather than remotely.”
Then Rooks emailed that she recently filed police reports on an individual for safety concerns and would feel safe with the officers at the event in case that individual came to the forum.
I responded that holding the forum virtually would eliminate this possibility altogether. I received no response other than she now would not participate in the forum. Aside from that, using their security could be a conflict of interest — receiving an in-kind donation of security from the campaigns of Rooks and Updegraff-Day.
All that happened rather rapidly.
While I appreciated the offer of private security, that would not work for our company due to liability concerns.
Ultimately we decided to cancel the forum because of the safety concerns, including those from Rooks, as well as because of the reactions from the Rooks and Updegraff-Day campaigns.
To date, the Peoria Independent has published numerous articles about the PUSD candidates sharing their stances on many issues. You can begin reading about it here.
In addition, we have decided to either conduct the forum entirely via recorded Microsoft Teams, with candidates appearing from separate locations or simply having candidates submit answers to questions we would have posed in the forum and running that online and in print, space permitting.
Philip Haldiman can be reached at email@example.com, or on Twitter @philiphaldiman.