Jul 152016
 

hometown

by Dennis Reeves Cooper…….

I typically resist starting anything I write with a quote from somebody famous. But I’m going to break my rule this time. In fact, I’m going to quote Winston Churchill twice, starting with: “Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Most Americans agree that democracy is a superior form of government. But we have a problem. To make our democratic system work best, an informed electorate is essential. Voters need to know who or what they are choosing and why. Which brings me to a second quote from Churchill: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” Yes, it is true that a large chunk of the American electorate is woefully under-informed. But ignorance doesn’t necessarily keep an under-informed voter from voting.

As an unapologetic political junkie, I have wondered for years about what might be done to (1) get citizens interested enough in good government to register to vote and, then (2) motivated enough to– before they vote– inform themselves about candidates and issues. In recent years, the government has made it easier and easier to register to vote and easier and easier to actually vote. Absentee voting and Early Voting are examples. And the press continues to play its traditional role in at least trying to inform voters about candidates and issues.

But in Key West, we have something additional– a citizens’ organization that has, for more than a decade, taken voter information to a whole new level. The group is called Hometown!– with an explanation point. This is the organization that organizes and sponsors those open-to-the-public political forums here before every election. These forums give candidates an opportunity to speak– and voters the opportunity to actually meet the candidates, hear their ideas, pick up their campaign literature, and to ask them questions face-to-face. These forums are streamed live on YouTube. In addition, Hometown! hosts a website that, before every election, lists the city and county elected offices being contested, as well as the names and photos of all of the candidates who are running to fill those offices– and the date, place and time of the next candidate forum. The website also includes important information about the dates of primary and general elections, the last day to register to vote, etc. The website even has a video archive of previous forums. I have been writing about elections here for years– and I don’t mind admitting that the Hometown! website is one of my primary sources of information. You can find this site at hometownkeywest.com.

One of the most impressive things about Hometown! is that, back in history, a group of Key Westers thought that creating such an organization was worth their time, effort and money. Nobody HAD to do it. But they thought that it was important thing to do for the community. And today, years later, nobody HAS to continue to spend their time, effort and money to keep such an organization alive and functioning. But they do it. Even if you are familiar with the free-to-the-public political forums sponsored by Hometown!, you may not be aware that this is a membership organization. And it’s not cheap. Annual membership fees range from $40 to $1000. And what do members get for their money? Nothing, really– other than knowing that, in Key West, any citizen with even the slightest interest in politics has a place to go for information. According to Todd German, the current president of Hometown!, the money generated by membership fees goes to pay rents for the venues and the “free” hors d’oeuvres, professional maintenance of the website and the uploads to YouTube, as well as other miscellaneous expenses. Hometown! has no employees and all members and board members are volunteers. German also emphasized that there is never a charge to attend any of the Hometown! forums.

Today, Hometown! is an important part of local politics. But that didn’t happen all at once. According to longtime Hometown! member Perry Johnston, the idea may have been conceived as early as the mid-1980s when Peter Ilchuk organized a group of neighbors in the Frances Street area to periodically get together at private homes to discuss neighborhood concerns. By the mid-1990s, this group had evolved into a larger neighborhood group organized by John Mertz and meetings were attracting politically-concerned citizens from all over town. By this time, the group had a name– the Key West Neighborhood Association (KWNA). By 2004, 60-100 residents were attending KWNA meetings and it became apparent to the organization’s leaders that holding meetings at private homes was no longer practical and public venues had to be considered. But the good news was that the size of the KWNA meetings routinely attracted political office holders as well as wanna-be office holders to the meetings as speakers, especially at election time.

During this period, KWNA members began to discuss the idea of converting the neighborhood association to a political action committee that would sponsor political forums in public venues. By April 2004, the PAC was registered and announced, and was organized in time for the 2005 political campaigns. The first candidate forum was held at the Tropic Cinema in August 2005. The house was packed. “The first thing I said to the audience,” Todd German recalled, “was, ‘And they said that nobody would come.'” In addition to German, early board members and advisers included Jane Vetter, Ericka Biddle, Peter Ilchuk, Carol Wightman, Ed Block, Richard Grusin, John Padgett, John Mertz, Perry Johnston and Bob Schettig. At first, in addition to sponsoring political forums and encouraging citizen participation in city and county government, the Hometown! board of directors also endorsed candidates and provided contributions of up to $500 to the campaign funds of the endorsed candidates. In 2009, however, the decision was made to discontinue endorsements and place more emphasis on voter information. The decision was also made to convert Hometown! from a PAC to a not-for-profit 501c3 organization, so all donations are tax deductible.

The next Hometown political forum is July 25 at the Studios of Key West, 533 Eaton Street, 5-7:30. This is a question-and-answer forum for candidates for selected offices on the ballot for the August 30 primary election– candidates for Mayor of Key West, City Commission, County Commission, Utility Board and Mosquito Control Board. The social period starts at 5:30. Free hors d’oeuvres and cash bar. The questions and answers start at 6. This event is open to all. If you can’t attend in person, the event will stream live on YouTube (just click the YouTube icon in the website) and will then be archived on the website.

More information: hometownkeywest.com

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Dennis Reeves Cooper
IN THE PHOTO: DENNIS REEVES COOPER PH.D AND BILL O'REILLY. Dr. Cooper founded Key West The Newspaper in 1994 and published the paper for 18 years, until he retired in 2012. In 2001, Key West Police Chief Buz Dillon had Cooper arrested and jailed, alleging that Cooper had violated an obscure state gag law when writing about a police investigation. The journalist-arrested story hit the national news and Bill O'reilly called and invited Cooper to appear on his show on Fox News. Dillon was also invited to appear, but refused the invitation. O'Reilly suggested that Dillon was "hiding under his desk." The ACLU also called and offered to sue the City of Key West on Cooper's behalf. Subsequently, the gag law was declared unconstitutional and the City settled out of court for $240,000. Also, the arrest was a factor in the creation of an independent police oversight board-- the Citizen Review Board (CRB)-- by Key West voters in November 2002. By that time, Buz Dillon had been unceremoniously fired.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------More Articles By Dennis Reeves Cooper prior to November, 2014.
 July 15, 2016  Posted by at 12:57 am Issue #175, Journalism as a Contact Sport  Add comments

  One Response to “THE BEST ARGUMENT AGAINST DEMOCRACY IS A FIVE-MINUTE CONVERSATION WITH THE AVERAGE VOTER. MAYBE NOT SO TRUE IN KEY WEST– BECAUSE OF THE HOMETOWN! POLITICAL FORUMS”

  1. As a county commission candidate, I attended my first Hometown! candidate forum in 2006, in Tropic Cinema, Key West. Since then, I suppose I attended a dozen Hometown! candidate events, as a candidate, and a few more as a spectator.

    Hometown!’s perennial Chairman Todd German is a good friend of mine. He does a darn good job moderating Hometown forums, calls to candidates before the filing deadline, and candidate rallies after the filing deadline. Hometown! Volunteers do a darn good job putting on forums and engaging people who attend the events. The food tends to be outstanding at Hometown! events where food can be served.

    Hometown!’s events are well attended by Anglos.Some Hispanics attend. A few Asians. A few blacks. I counted 3 blacks at Hometown!’s recent candidate rally in Studios of Key West, and one was a candidate. I think blacks in Key West have given up having sway in the city government.

    At Hometown! forums, candidates tend to be given challenging questions, and they tend to be called out for not answering questions straight forward. Watching Hometown!’s You Tube replays of its events is the 2nd best way to size up candidates. The first best way is to be at the Hometown! forums.

    I imagine candidates might say the best way for them to be sized up is to sit down and talk with them, which is a good way, but you don’t get to hear what their opponents have to say. Newspaper reports of candidate forums leave out a lot of what candidates say. Paid advertising (TV, radio, newspaper, roadside signs, pamphlets, etc.) tell you what candidates want you to hear.

    Unfortunately, a packed Hometown! event might be 200 spectators, and there are thousands of registered voters in Key West alone.

    There are other candidate forums in Key West, and in the Florida Keys, hosted by chambers of commerce, business organizations, community groups, etc. I have attended maybe two dozen of those forums, as a candidate. They are well done, but are not video recorded and tend to give candidates less, or a lot less, time to speak.

    My recollection is, at first Hometown! use to endorse candidates in races, and I kept getting onto Todd German and Hometown! about that, and finally Hometown! adopted this policy, which I lifted off their home page (http://www.hometownkeywest.com):

    “POLICY: To carry out this mission, it shall be the policy of Hometown! to encourage the citizens of Key West and Monroe County to exercise fully the rights of citizenship, including participation in the political life of their communities by being candidates for public office and to educate and involve themselves in community affairs. Hometown! will not, however, rate, endorse or contribute to candidates.

    “Further, Hometown! shall not participate or intervene in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for public office. In addition, members of the Board of Directors will not be authorized in their official capacity to make public or media statements in support of, or in opposition to, a political campaign or candidate for public office. When making such statements in their capacity as private citizens, such Directors must and will indicate clearly that they are not representing Hometown! or speaking for, or on behalf of, Hometown.”

    Once I told Todd German that Hometown! should let me be on a candidate forum panel, asking candidates questions. He laughed. Lots of luck!

    The best way to get to know me is read what I write in comments under blue paper articles, and what I write at my own website: http://www.goodmorningkeywest.com. Or, you can talk with me, if you bump into me. Dennis Reeves Cooper and Todd German both know that I don’t mince words or worry about pissing people off.

    Sloan Bashinsky, write-in KW mayor candidate, Nov 4 ballot