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    Donations raise questions about forum

    The organizer of a Largo forum contributed to the campaigns of two of the four candidates.

    By MICHAEL SANDLER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 25, 2002


    LARGO -- It looked like Jim Miles was coming to the rescue.

    Because no one else offered, Miles, a former Largo commissioner, volunteered to set up a political forum for this year's election.

    He even offered to write 20 questions to ask the four candidates seeking two seats. Miles asked permission to use the city chambers and wanted it televised on the city's station.

    One thing Miles forgot to mention: He has made financial contributions to two of the candidates.

    "That doesn't make any difference," he said yesterday when asked about not including that information in a letter sent Wednesday to Mayor Bob Jackson outlining his objectives or in a speech Tuesday before the City Commission.

    Miles gave $50 contributions to Pat Burke, who is seeking re-election for Seat 1, and to Charlie Harper, who is challenging for Seat 2. He said he gave nothing to Mary Laurance, the Seat 2 incumbent, or Charles Graul, who is challenging Burke.

    He sees nothing wrong with a supporter of some candidates choosing questions for all of them.

    "Why shouldn't I?" said Miles, a commissioner for 18 years who lost a bid for mayor in 2000. "Sure, that's d--- nice of me to do that."

    In fact, Miles said he also has plans to moderate two smaller, untelevised forums -- the Largo Republicans and the Greater Largo Chamber of Commerce -- and has invited all four candidates to his home for an intimate sit-down with 68 of his neighbors -- whom he selected.

    For the televised forum, he intends to find a moderator from the League of Women Voters to ask his questions. He wants only limited participation from the audience.

    "This will preclude "stacking the house' with loaded questions by any candidate against an opponent," he wrote in his letter, "and will give each candidate a fair and equal opportunity to let the citizens of Largo know who they are and how they stand on all the issues."

    Burke said Miles' support would not interfere with his plans for a clean forum.

    "I know he is a huge supporter of mine," she said. "Why not? If it was somebody supporting Charles Graul, I don't mind answering any questions. Even if Charles Graul wrote the questions, I don't have a problem with that."

    Laurance does. She worries that Miles would be able to steer the debate.

    "Is there an agenda?" said Laurance. "It begs the question: Is this in my best interest? Is this in Charles Graul's interest?"

    Graul said he would want to see the questions before giving his support, but is willing to give it a try.

    However Harper, who benefitted from Miles' generosity, suggested his supporter step back once the forum is organized.

    "There are other people that can be more objective," said Harper. "I've got to congratulate him for stepping forward. He's supporting me, and I make no apologies. But you draw the line."

    This month, Jackson publicly questioned why the city has no televised forum for its candidates. He acknowledged the potential for impartiality with Miles in charge, but said he would support the forum if other people have an opportunity to ask questions. Mainly, he's happy someone has shown interest.

    "If someone has got the gumption and initiative to do it, I wouldn't stand in the way," he said.

    -- Michael Sandler can be reached at (727) 445-4174 or sandler@sptimes.com.

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