Should political candidates be allowed to have their own booths at the Creekside Festival?
Dennis Cross, Palm Coast City Council District 3 candidate, believes they have a right to separate booths.
Doug Baxter, president of the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce & Affiliates, says the festival is meant to support arts and crafts, not become a campaign headquarters.
The two pled their cases during the public comments at the Sept. 19 meeting of the Flagler County Board of County Commissioners.
“Only 10% of our voters turned out for the city election,” Cross said. “Our city deserves a respectable voter turnout if we expect Palm Coast to continue to be a great place to live.”
Cross said he applied for a booth at the Creekside Festival but was told only parties can have booths, not individual candidates, in order to limit the political nature of the event.
But because the city election is nonpartisan, Cross said it would be against the rules for him to affiliate himself with a party.
“I cannot go to one of the three party tents without being in violation,” Cross said. “(The chamber) does not have a right to deny me an equal opportunity to meet voters and listen to their concerns … I think that the policy should be all or none.”
John Ruffalo, campaign manager for District 1 challenger Bill McGuire, took the podium to read a letter written by McGuire, echoing Cross’ concerns.
“The chamber’s intent has to be to hurt Palm Coast’s nonpartisan voter turnout,” he said. “How is that best for all of our residents?”
He suggested that the chamber’s law favors Jason DeLorenzo, who challenges McGuire in District 3 and is married to the chamber’s executive vice president, Rebecca DeLorenzo. (Jason DeLorenzo, as a nonpartisan candidate, would not be allowed to have his own tent or associate with a party tent.)
Baxter responded: “The Creekside Festival is a festival for families, for arts and crafts — not for politics,” he said. “We are trying not to make the Creekside Festival a campaign venue … We are nonpartisan. We do not pick candidates. We’re not looking to hurt any of the candidates. That is their job, to get out and campaign — not the job of the Creekside Festival … We’re trying to do the right thing for the citizens of Flagler County, and not get in a political battle … The public doesn’t want that. They’ve made it very clear to us.”
After the public comments, the commission discussed the issue.
Commission Chairman Alan Peterson said he was in favor of setting up a separate, isolated booth that all candidates can share. But, he said the county should not get involved in a private organization’s affairs.
“We’ve never told an organization what they must do,” he said, “and I have to respect that.”
County Attorney Al Hadeed noted that the candidates may attend the event, wear their buttons or T-shirts, and talk to festival-goers. But the chamber is under no county obligation.
“I’m a little uneasy with withholding political speech,” Commissioner Nate McLaughlin said. “It seems to me there’s county involvement, there’s public dollars.”
Commissioner Milissa Holland, who campaigned at the Creekside Festival in 2006, agreed.
Commissioner Barbara Revels was conflicted. “It’s their party,” she said of the chamber. She pressed Baxter on the idea of having a separate booth that individual candidates can share.
“I’ve discussed it with the board and none of us want to do that,” Baxter said.
The board tabled the conversation, for discussion at its next meeting.
For more, see the print edition of the Palm Coast Observer.