Orting candidates fear the councilman who pays for forum will call the tune

Orting’s deputy mayor has planned a candidate forum for Friday night (Oct. 23) that has his opponent and candidates in other Orting City Council races up in arms.

They say Joshua Penner booked the city’s Multi-Purpose Center without checking candidates’ availability or lining up an impartial moderator.

Those candidates told The News Tribune they’re concerned the result will be a one-sided audience and a lack of fairness.

Penner denounced their claims, arguing that the event is simply aimed at providing voters access to information before the Nov. 3 election.

Penner noted that he paid for it with personal, not campaign, funds and that the format doesn’t need a moderator because it won’t be a debate or a town-hall type event.

“We’re just speaking to an audience about our platform. It’s an opportunity to get their message out,” he said. “It’s never been advertised as anything else.”

Penner’s Position 6 opponent, Arlene Dannat, says she has a prior commitment but that if the event had been organized more fairly and with regard for candidates’ schedules, she would have participated.

“He set the rules, he set the time, he set the place,” Dannat said. “It’s pretty one-sided. It is his event.”

She added that a lack of a moderator would open the flood gates for “hostile mudslinging” from Penner’s supporters.

Position 5 candidate Nicola McDonald said she’s still working to move around her schedule, but plans to attend the forum Friday at 7 p.m.

“I have stuff on my calendar that I’ve had since the summer,” she said, stressing that it’s frustrating Penner planned the event before checking everyone’s availability. “I don’t mind these events at all. We could have picked a better time.”

She stressed that many candidates worry about an audience stacked with Penner’s supporters.

“Without a moderator, it strengthens that concern,” McDonald said. “I’m hoping it ends up being a very civil event.”

Position 4 candidate Dave Harman said he’s leaning toward attending, but hasn’t made up his mind.

“It’s just not the professional way to do this,” Harman said.

Position 1 candidate Gwen Robson said she doesn’t plan to attend. She said she shares the other candidates’ concerns and fears she would face attacks from Penner’s supporters as she has recently on social media.

“They’re going to bash me for not being there,” Robson said, “but better than bashing me for what I say.”

Penner acknowledged other candidates’ concerns about fairness, given his involvement in paying for and organizing the forum. But he stressed that he immediately notified the candidates of the date and never received feedback on how to improve the process.

Penner didn’t appear to break any election rules, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission.

Neither the city of Orting or Pierce County Television are participating.

“If the city were to be involved, this is not the way it would be done,” City Administrator Mark Bethune said. “We would follow our past practice,” which includes contacting a nonpartisan group such as the League of Women Voters to organize and moderate the event.

Dave Hinman, general manager of PCTV, said he initially agreed to tape the forum and air it on the public-access station because he believed it was city-sponsored. The taping was canceled when he learned otherwise.

“We made the decision that it didn’t meet the criteria that we usually follow,” Hinman said.

He added that a third-party moderator, such as the League of Women Voters, would be required.

“They understand the rules that go into setting those up and the proper way to invite the candidates,” Hinman said.

Kari Plog: 253-597-8682