Mallozzi declines to debate
Updated 4:20 pm, Wednesday, September 30, 2015
There will be no debate between candidates in the first contested election for first selectman in six years in New Canaan.
With First Selectman Rob Mallozzi being a no-show, the League of Women Voters of New Canaan won’t host the incumbent’s sole opponent, petitioning candidate Michael Nowacki, at a planned public forum it was organizing on Oct. 19 in advance of November’s election. The New Canaan league decided Wednesday not to conduct traditional debates in 2015. Instead, the League is preparing a non-partisan voters guide which include candidates for all offices.
Citing federal and state election and tax laws, the LWV notified Nowacki by email that he would not be able to participate in the Oct. 19 debate because Mallozzi was skipping it. The group said Nowacki’s appearance in the absence of Mallozzi might be considered an “in-kind” campaign contribution, jeopardizing the league’s nonprofit status.
“We have consulted with our moderator and LWV debate expert, and have reached the conclusion that in view of Rob’s decision, there can be no debate for the position of first selectman,” the message said. “It would be what is called an empty-chair debate.”
Nowacki questioned the league’s justification for making the decision, which he said is possibly illegal and prejudicial against his campaign and decreases his chances of unseating either of the other two incumbents on the board, Republican Nick Williams or Democrat Beth Jones.
“They are controlling the process for the incumbents,” Nowacki said.
He said he is considering a complaint to the State Election Enforcement Commission, arguing that even if the league’s bylaws bar debate appearances, the decision smacks of disparate treatment given that Mallozzi was able to participate in a State of the Town address to the league at an event Sept. 24 at Waveny House.
“If you are an incumbent and you have the ability to basically control the topics of conversation by deciding not to participate, think about the chilling effect on democracy,” Nowacki said. “… The incumbent would always have the advantage.
“It is inexplicable to me that Rob Mallozzi addresses them on Thursday and then three or four days later I’m excluded (from the forum),” Nowacki said.
Mallozzi, who is seeking a third term, said this week he will not reconsider taking part in a debate with Nowacki. He said engaging with Nowacki would allow Nowacki to propound “conspiracy theories” about local government.
Nowacki, a retired media advertising executive, is known for filing hundreds of Freedom of Information Act requests to the town as part of his longstanding quest to review town government and school finances in search of nontransparent or wasteful spending and accounting procedures.
This week Mallozzi called Nowacki “disrespectful,” “a mentally ill person” and not “worthy of office,” based on his experiences dealing with Nowacki at town meetings and over email.
“There is no way I’m giving that guy a forum, and I don’t think he is fit for duty,” Mallozzi said. “I have no plans to change what I’ve said and I no longer engage him as a first selectman or a resident because he is very disrespectful. … It is a zero sum game.”
Early in September, Mallozzi met with a state prosecutor about regular emails he was receiving from Nowacki as well as encounters he worried were escalating to harassing behavior.
“He has every right to talk about these things and he does talk to people all over town,” Mallozzi said. “But he has an extremely confrontational and accusatory way about him. We answer questions all day long in this town; we’re very customer-service oriented. But the fact is, if you don’t answer this guy the right way, you get sued and have to hire a lawyer. There is no value that comes of it.”
Jara Burnett, the expected moderator of the New Canaan forum and director of debates for the state chapter of the LWV, advised the New Canaan chapter to cancel the “empty chair” debate. Burnett said it is unfortunate when incumbents choose not to debate challengers.
Messages left for Kit Devereaux, the president of the New Canaan LWV were returned by Burnett.
“I can see the point about it giving a candidate a chance to avoid debating and that is naturally a downside,” Burnett said. “But that candidate (the incumbent) opens themselves up to their opponent publicizing that they refused to debate.
“The state league has a very firm policy that an empty chair debate is not to be held,” Burnett said. “It is a real no-no.”
Nowacki and Mallozzi will have the opportunity to contribute platform statements and other materials for inclusion in the chapter’s print and online voter guide, Burnett said.
Two weeks ago in Monroe, the local league canceled a debate between first selectman candidates scheduled for Oct. 6 when the Democratic challenger, Dan Hunsberger, accepted, but incumbent Republican Steve Vavrek declined.
“It kills me when this happens because I don’t think the voters are well served, but these are the rules we play by,” Rabinow said. “Often the incumbent doesn’t want to give the challenger a forum.”
Nowacki said he is pursuing a possible complaint to the Federal Communications Commission that the broadcast of the forum on local government access television might violate federal communication laws that require air time to be used to serve the public.
“They (the league) are going to be heavily under scrutiny,” Nowacki said. “Other candidates are on television every week and this is a decision that is strictly prejudicial against a single candidate.”