[UPDATED] An Off Night for Democracy, Free Press in Deerfield Beach

Ex-Mayor Al Capellini (left), at the dais, next to mayoral candidates Don Cleveland and Jean RobbEXPAND
Ex-Mayor Al Capellini (left), at the dais, next to mayoral candidates Don Cleveland and Jean Robb


A mayor hit with felony corruption charges; a commissioner booked for the same; a city manager suspended after ordering deputies to remove a commissioner during a public meeting. When it comes to dirty tricks and political theater, Deerfield Beach residents have seen it all. But even the understandably jaded followers of city politics were appalled by what they witnessed Tuesday evening at a candidate's forum held by the Observer, the community newspaper. The word I heard most: "Disgrace."

No one who's read the Observer's political coverage expected this forum to be even-handed. The moderator (a term that must be used loosely here) had only the week before written a guest editorial for the Observer that opened by declaring the felony corruption charge against former Mayor Al Capellini to be a "cheap shot" -- the work of Capellini foes manipulating a too-credulous Broward state attorney.

But no one -- not even the candidates who knew that the paper's masthead despised them -- expected the moderator, William E. Bucknam, to be openly hostile. Which Bucknam plainly was to candidates not named Al Capellini.

This was the candidates' forum that must be seen to be believed -- the archived video can be found on this page. (It's not a direct link. Click on "Menu," then "On Demand Library," and finally the icon for "mayoral forum.") The action starts at about the 19-minute mark. About the 44-minute mark, a question to Former Mayor Jean Robb causes three of the six candidates to storm out, along with half the crowd.

After the jump, the story of the craziest goddamned candidates forum I've ever seen.

Staged in a ballroom at the Deerfield Beach Hilton near Hillsboro Boulevard, the forum started innocuously enough. Each of the six candidates was given a few minutes to make an opening statement. Things didn't get interesting until about 20 minutes into the event, when Bucknam whipped out his notes for questions.

The first went to Capellini. Taking care to mention Capellini's expertise as an engineer, Bucknam asked whether the city could really afford to build another water treatment plant, as asserted by Peggy Noland, the candidate who had just earned the Sun-Sentinel's editorial endorsement. The question allowed him to mention how, during his time as mayor, Deerfield Beach's water was the envy of the state, how it was even available during the hurricanes when other cities were boiling theirs as a precaution. "There's no need to build another plant, to spend another $50 million," said Capellini.

The next question went to Don Cleveland, the candidate who's a favorite of (if not quite officially endorsed by) the Deerfield Beach Democratic Club. "Quite honestly Mr. Cleveland, you're something of an enigma," Bucknam began, ominously. He then mocked the $26.50 price tag of a book Cleveland had written, mentioning that it ranked 3,821,641 on the best-seller list of books on Amazon.com, until finally arriving at his question. "For all the time you have been a resident of this city, you have had no civic involvement of any kind," Bucknam said. "Why should the citizens of Deerfield Beach elect someone to be their mayor who has essentially ignored them for years?"

"That's a very interesting question," said Cleveland, looking stunned. "I wish I could have written it into my book." He disputed Bucknam's premise, pointing out that he'd been the secretary of the Deerfield Beach Democratic Club.

Next up, Jean Robb, the Deerfield Beach mayor of 13 years who preceded Capellini. There's bad blood between the two. Bucknam set up his question by declaring his opinion as fact: "Mrs. Robb," he said, "just as a leopard does not change its spots, you are unable to change your character." He then marched through a litany of offenses, such as "bullying the city manager," until finally arriving at his question: Why should the voters choose "chaos and hostility"?

This wasn't Robb's first rodeo. She greeted this foray with a rueful smile. "Was I aggressive as mayor?" she asked rhetorically. "Yes! If somebody is not doing his or her job, he doesn't deserve to be paid with our tax dollars." She added, "You talk about my tenure as mayor? Look at what's happened in the years since I left the podium."

Another question for Robb. This time, Bucknam opened by describing a work of fiction she had written after serving as mayor. Its characters seemed suspiciously similar to actual figures at City Hall. It was a book, said Bucknam, that "vilified everyone using XXX language I cannot repeat here. I obtained a copy for $1.99. If you are elected mayor, can we expect a sequel to your book?"

Ah, but Bucknam let that beanball stray over the middle of the plate. "Only if you want to be in it," answered Robb drily. As laughter and clapping erupted from the audience, Bucknam's bald head assumed a slightly deeper shade of crimson.

C. Don Petersen, who works in pharmaceutical sales and training, received a question that seemed unthreatening. Does he favor a code of ethics? He does, indeed. And in saying so, he walked into the trap: a follow-up question that demanded details about how the city would avoid spending untold millions on lawyers in Washington, D.C., and Tallahassee, the endless appeals, on and on and on. Petersen answered, much less confidently than before, that he "would try to see if we can deal with that here in Deerfield Beach" as opposed to D.C. or Tallahassee.

Not all of Bucknam's questions were loaded or booby-trapped. He asked Noland how the city would afford to keep the Deerfield Beach firefighters' pension whole when it had unfunded liability of $6 million as of October 2007, a figure that will surely rise after the past year's market turbulence. A fair question, as Noland has been criticized for having voted on the city's contract with the Fire Department when ethically she should have recused herself, as her husband was a firefighter. Today both her husband and son are with the department. Noland told Bucknam that since not all of the 150 firefighters would retire at once, the pension fund would swing back with the markets. She added that if she is elected mayor, "I won't vote on the pension or salaries of firefighters."

"Anymore?" asked Bucknam, as if reminding her of the word she forgot.

Finally, it was Caryl Berner's turn. The activist who in her opening remarks had boasted that commissioners called her "The One" for her habit of bringing tough questions to meetings, Burner is the prohibitive underdog -- a threat to no one. Still, Bucknam seemed vexed by her mere presence on the dais. "With only $87 in your campaign account," he said, "how can you possibly expect voters to take you seriously?"

To the crowd's delight, the feisty Burner turned on Bucknam. "You are one of the problems in our city, Mr. Bucknam," she said to applause. "You're the type of people we are trying to get out of the commission." She then predicted exactly which candidates the Observer would endorse in the election, starting with Capellini.

A young man sitting in front of me, wearing a Noland campaign shirt, said to his two friends, "This is better than Comedy Central."

The crowd became more boisterous as the forum went on, especially as Bucknam fired loaded questions at some candidates, easy ones to Capellini. To quiet the audience, Bucknam had to remind them that a deputy at the back of the ballroom was prepared to haul off anyone who disrupted the forum.

After a commercial break, another softball question for Capellini:  "As the city's tax base continues to dwindle, with the reduced values of homes and businesses going belly-up, how do you balance the demands of one segment of Deerfield Beach residents who are diametrically opposed to any development, with the need to attract new business in the city to create jobs? (In other words, "How do you cope with people so stupid they don't appreciate your vision?")  Capellini gave another graceful answer, ending with a reminder that he was experienced and knowledgeable.

That civil tone didn't last. To Cleveland, Bucknam said, "I have been unable to verify any of your work experience because you don't identify the names of your employers or the dates you were employed." But if Bucknam thought he'd caught Cleveland embellishing his credentials, the ploy backfired.

"The trouble is that neither you nor your newspaper has bothered to ask me that question until now," said Cleveland. "You could have just called me. The Sun-Sentinel has. The Miami Herald has." Cleveland then elaborated on his resume.

Back to Jean Robb. This was the question that sparked the mass exodus, so I'll reproduce it in full. Said Bucknam to Robb:

The ethics ordinance up for vote next Tuesday also contains a morality provision many people probably are not aware of. It provides that a public official "shall not harass, date, have sexual relations with or have a romantic relationship with any employee of the city." You have obviously established yourself as something of a moral arbiter with the publication of your novel. If you are able to win election and if commissioners Popelski and Militello win reelection, are you prepared to accompany them on their midnight forays armed with powerful halogen flashlights to peek into the windows of city officials, business people, and future candidates to ascertain who may be sleeping with whom?

Before Robb could answer, Noland stood up in a rage. "We all came here in good faith because the residents of this community -- "

"You are out of order, Mrs. Noland," said Bucknam.

Out of the audience popped a middle-aged man in a dark suit. "Mrs. Robb, as your lawyer, I'm telling you to leave." She climbed off the dais. So did Noland. Berner followed a short time later.

I caught up with Noland in the hall. "I couldn't take it anymore," she said. The forum, she added, was "a disgrace."

"I knew that they were going to be  tough," she said of the Observer. "I knew they were going to go after the Fire Department pension" -- a line of inquiry she admitted was fair. "But I didn't know it was going to be like this."

Robb might be a rival on the campaign trail, said Noland, but "she served this community. I respect her, and she did not deserve that."

The episode had caused her to lose respect for the two other rivals who she believed ought to have joined her in the walk-off. "Cleveland and Petersen still sit there, the morons," she said.

As for Capellini and a candidates' forum that seemed tilted decidedly in his direction? "The residents in this community are not as stupid as he wants to believe," said Noland. She vowed to pull her ads from the Observer and to take a fiercer tone on the campaign trail. "I've been respectful, courteous. But now the gloves are off."

A city worker who didn't want to identify himself told Noland, "That was the most biased, most retarded thing I've ever seen in my life."

Back in the ballroom, the tension had only gotten thicker. Members of the audience -- most of whom were elderly -- were standing up to yell at Bucknam. "You suck!" hollered one man. "Wow, what a moderator!" said a woman, sarcastically.

In closing statements, the three candidates left on the dais tried to capitalize on the others' early departure, stressing that the job of mayor would require a temperament that could handle contentious meetings like this one. "Let me tell you, politics is tough," said Capellini. "They will scratch your eyes out and kick you. You have to take it. I have watched my kids come home from school crying. They say, 'Daddy, why would they say such things?'"

Since Bucknam had failed to ask Capellini any questions about his pending felony case, which every other mayoral candidate alluded to directly or obliquely, Capellini addressed it in his closing remarks: "Everybody talks about corruption. We have to stop the corruption in the city, and they're pointing at me. What corruption? Who's pinched? Who's been caught? Who has taken any money? Most of these actions are politically motivated."

As Bucknam was coming down from the dais, I introduced myself and asked him for a brief interview. "Seems like you really stole the show tonight," I began, and he gave me a quizzical look, as if he hadn't noticed that residents were screaming at him during the forum and that half of them left in a rage before it was over. I told him that there seemed to a perception that his questions were biased. Were they? "Hardly," he answered. "The questions were based on people's records."

I told Bucknam that it seemed he didn't ask Capellini any tough questions. "Oh, I think I did," he said.

Finally, I mentioned how members of the audience alleged that he was out to embarrass Capellini's rivals and that he tossed softball questions to the ex-mayor. "That's an absurd conclusion," he said.

Deerfield Beach residents go to the polls March 10.

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