Chosing a debatable strategy 

In the final month of the penny sales-tax campaigns, there will be no debate. By refusing to meet their opponents, the pro-tax group has seen to that. Instead voters will be barraged with leaflets and telephone calls from both sides. Public meetings will feature either the viewpoint of Common Cents, the pro-tax group, or Citizens Opposed to the Sales Tax, the anti-tax group. Never will they share a stump. "I don't have time to screw around arguing ideology," says Tico Perez, co-chair of Common Cents. "Our decision was to take the game plan to the people." In the two weeks leading to Oct. 15 -- when mail-in ballots will be delivered to more than 370,000 Orange County voters -- Perez will make more than 60 speeches. Each will emphasize the importance of passing the 1-cent increase in sales tax so that 608 projects involving schools, roads, parks and stormwater retention can be financed with $2.2 billion to be raised in 10 years. In staying this course, Common Cents even refused to participate in a debate before the Tiger Bay Club, an influential group of business and political insiders. "They've probably all made up their minds," Perez says. While declining to debate, Perez emphasized the group's willingness to speak publicly on the issue. "Anybody who wants us calls and we come," he says. "Everything in my life is on hold until this is over." The time for debate has passed, says Joanie Schirm, Perez's co-chair. "There's nothing more to debate, in my opinion," Schirm says. "It's time to say, "Do you want these things, people?'" In taking this position, Common Cents has managed to alienate the chairman of the Orange County Democratic Party, which had backed the tax proposal, as well as Rollins College political science professor Rick Foglesong, who put together a county-funded public forum broadcast Sept. 21 on WMFE-Channel 24, as well as other efforts to seek public input on the proposal. "As a supporter `of the tax`, I don't get it," says Doug Head, Democratic Party chairman. "They don't care about democracy, they just care about winning at any cost." Head is particularly piqued by language added by Ben Hardcastle, communications director for Orange County Chairman Linda Chapin, introducing and ending the WMFE program. It was Hardcastle who managed the $100,000 campaign funded through the county budget that preceded the decision to put the issue on mail-in ballots ("Penny Ante," July 24). Hardcastle says his voice- over was added -- after the forum ended but before it was broadcast -- to correct "inaccuracies" in comments made during the two-hour forum, and after Foglesong refused to make them himself. "He had two hours; we had two minutes to clear the air," Hardcastle says. WMFE executive Helene Funk says the station was simply serving the interests of the county, which funded the program (albeit with public funds). "This is a public information program. It was produced in collaboration with Orange County," says Funk, vice president in charge of television programming. "It's not a news program. There wasn't any other side." Foglesong, director of Project Governance at Rollins College, said he "had to pull teeth" to convince Perez, Schirm and other tax proponents to participate in the public forum. He characterized Common Cents' refusal to debate as "kind of unfriendly to democracy." In taking this stance, the tax supporters are making a political mistake, Foglesong said. "It's not good for them. It makes them seem afraid. It's certainly not good for the community." While compromising democratic ideals, this also undermines the pro-tax group's emphasis on an oversight board, which would be appointed to ensure the proper use of the tax funds. "The big issue in this campaign is trust," Foglesong said. It is not unusual for sure political winners to eschew debating their opponents. But Foglesong says, "My gut -- and whispers I'm hearing -- tell me the pro-tax people are not ahead." For lack of live debate, Foglesong referred voters to a website (http://www. that features a variety of materials on the issue, as well as a discussion area. While Perez and Schirm seem personally convinced of their strategy, it is the campaign's Colorado-based consultant, The Welchert Co., which is getting most of the blame for the decision to avoid debating the issue. "I don't think it does any good to debate people who distort the facts constantly," says Steve Welchert. Noting that Common Cents stands ready to speak to any group, he says "It's not like a candidate running to the Rose Garden to hide." Describing the county-funded forum as slanted against his pro-tax client, Welchert said Common Cents refuses to share billing. "If people want to misrepresent the facts, they can do that with their own campaign dollars," he says. In the end, tax advocates may pay for their refusal to debate. This week's decision by Ax the Tax -- a local group that has fought every tax initiative since 1982 -- to formally enter the fray suggests growing opposition. Common Cents had not expected them to take a stand. Their decision to do so gives the penny pushers one more flank to cover.

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