By Alex Bridges
Independent candidates have bowed out of a forum for the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors races.
Of the five candidates seeking two board seats, only incumbent Supervisor Dennis Morris and District 5 challenger Steve Shaffer confirmed attendance for Thursday's forum, Jamie Nichols, vice president of the Shenandoah County Education Association, said Monday.
Marsha Shruntz, challenging Morris for the District 4 seat, and Cindy Bailey, vying for District 5, declined to attend the forum, Nichols said. Democratic Party candidate Emily Scott expressed interest in participating but had not yet confirmed her attendance, Nichols said.
Shaffer and Morris represent the Republican Party in the Nov. 5 general election.
Bailey said Monday she declined to participate because of the timing and prior commitments the day of the forum.
"We've just had everything scheduled out for the last two weeks before the election to kind of map out what we're doing," Bailey said. "When they initially reached out to me I said yes, I would be interested in participating, depending on when, where, that kind of thing."
"Obviously they wanted our participation," Bailey said. "I understand that."
Shruntz on Monday claimed the local GOP played a role in the last-minute scheduling of the forum. While she and Bailey did not attend a recent GOP meeting, Shruntz cited accounts by an audience member.
"I can assure that at the meeting this past week ... Chairman David Ferguson dismissed people that were there because he thinks they support the independents and they went into closed-door session," Shruntz said. "It was absolutely said at that closed-door session that they were going to discuss the upcoming local election and the forum. So, clearly I feel the Shenandoah County Education Association and the Republican GOP Committee are clearly behind this forum. It was stacked against Cindy and I from the very beginning."
Nichols denied any involvement by the Shenandoah County Republican Party in the planning of the forum. Ferguson did not return a call for comment.
"There was no involvement by the Republican Party at all," Nichols said. "[Shruntz and Bailey] actually insinuated that in some emails to me but I have no standing relationship with Mr. Shaffer or Mr. Morris. We haven't endorsed anyone."
Nichols also said that organizers advised candidates of the timing of the forum.
"We let all candidates know, when we first contacted them, that this was a very fast turnaround and we were planning it very quickly," Nichols said. "So we first contacted all five and asked them their interest level. All five were interested. Then we stayed in touch with them throughout the planning process."
Even though the board had been talking about a forum for the past six months or more, members decided at their September meeting to hold the event, Nichols said.
"So we felt like this is something that we could collaborate with other sponsors in the community, just to allow candidates to convey their platforms, encourage local participation in their government and to allow voters just to receive the information they need in order to cast their ballots," Nichols said.
The board realized the short notice.
"Basically time got away from us," Nichols said. "We almost didn't do it but we thought, you know what, we're basing it as a forum, not as a debate. So any time we can get candidates together and just offer the opportunity for anyone who can fit it in their schedule.
"It was only after we were in the thick of planning that we realized that Miss Bailey and Miss Shruntz would not be participating with us," Nichols said.
Morris and Shaffer continued to confirm their interest in participating, Nichols said. Organizers had not talked to Scott in the past several days, Nichols added.
Nichols said Bailey and Shruntz notified her by email on Friday that they would not participate in the forum.
That leaves two Republican Party candidates and possibly the Democratic hopeful at the forum.
"Had we known that the independent candidates would not participate, to be honest with you, we probably would not have held it because ... we don't want just one party coming to a forum," Nichols said. "But, on the other hand, we also do want to give everyone the opportunity and, with the Democratic candidate hopefully still attending, at least for those who are still able to attend ... they'll still be able to talk with voters and continue to answer questions that the community has about important issues in this election."
Nichols, noting that Bailey and Shruntz had some specific requests for the forum, said organizers accommodated about half the requests. One was for all questions in advance.
"It was understandable that they would want the questions ahead of time," Nichols said. "Just with our timeframe that wasn't possible, and they wanted to restrict their questions to six questions only and we couldn't do that because we wanted a little bit longer of a format."
Organizers could meet only some of Bailey and Shruntz's requests, Nichols noted.
"So when we were not able to meet their explicit requests they declined to attend," Nichols said. "I think it came from them being nervous that there was some kind of a line that it was the Republican nominees."
Organizers have chosen Luther "Bill" Wheat, a veteran guidance counselor for the Shenandoah County public schools who lives in Stephens City, as moderator of the event, which will be held at 5:30 p.m. Thursday in the Toms Brook Fire Hall.
Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or firstname.lastname@example.org