The upcoming Squirm Night, Santa Monica Daily Press' forum devoted to asking tough questions of residents seeking local office, is already making candidates squirm—but it's not because they're uncomfortable with the questions.
For the first time, the event is exclusive.
The community newspaper shook up the forum's format this year, inviting participation from only 9 of 15 candidates vying for a seat on the City Council this November. Hearing from a narrower field, the audience will "benefit from a more thorough examination of candidates than we have been able to provide in the past," the Daily Press' editor wrote in an email to candidates.
To qualify, candidates needed to have raised $1,000 in political donations or loans, secured endorsements from "credible" community organizations, garnered at least 5 percent of the vote in the last election they participated in and returned a questionnaire from the paper, editor Kevin Herrera wrote.
Publisher Ross Furukawa told Patch the decision to be more selective was made "in the spirit of informing and educating our local electorate.... we decided to put in place criteria that selected candidates that we felt should be at Squirm."
More than half of the candidates protested, calling the move un-democratic, and at least one neighborhood group, the Wilshire-Montana Neighborhood Coalition, withdrew its sponsorship.
The "democracy and the integrity of the electoral process are best served by inclusion rather than exclusion," wrote incumbents Gleam Davis and Terry O'Davis, along with candidate Shari Davis, in a joint letter to the paper. The letter continued.
Your exclusion of certain candidates seems to suggest that they or their views are not worthy of voters' consideration. That is not the case. Moreover, we are concerned about the long-term effect of your decision
They went on to caution it would set a bad precedent for other forum organizers could follow suit:
If that were to happen, it would deprive some of the candidates of their best opportunities to meet voters and set forth their positions and might ultimately discourage residents from running for office.
Those were not invited agreed they would be put a disadvantage.
"As a penniless/paperless candidate, participating in these debates is one of the few opportunities for me to have a voice and level the playing field, thus providing the voters of our community with a choice between old stlye [sic] politics and grass roots participatory democracy," said candidate Jonathan Mann.
Candidate Steve Duron, who was invited, said inclusive forums have allowed him and his opponents to share "insightful comments and ideas."
"With so much at stake in this election, it would be most beneficial for residents to have access to these views so that they can make informed decisions about who they would like to see sitting at the dais, leading Santa Monica," he said.
But Furukawa said meeting the criteria was "easily attainable." The least a winning City Council candidate has raised is $35,000, he said.
"I don’t know how you win a campaign in this town without raising money—that’s the history," he said.
And, he said each candidate was given equal play and space in the newspaper's 2012 Election Guide.
Still, he wasn't surprised the change was met with negative responses.
"When we made this decision, we didn't do it lightly," he said. "We have limited resources, we have limited amount of time and limited attention spans of people sitting in the seats."
"The Santa Monica 6," as they're calling themselves, are planning to "occupy" Squirm Night, which is 6 p.m. Monday at the main library.