The three Democratic candidates for the Athens at-large City Council race all missed last week’s Ohio University Student Senate student town hall meeting.
The incumbent Democratic candidates — Micah McCarey, Sarah Grace and Ben Ziff — all gave reasons for not being able to make the Thursday, Sept. 30 forum — but Athens Democratic Party chair John Haseley points to what he said was an “odd” lack of communication between organizers and participants.
“You hate to be suspicious and conspiratorial, it seems odd the three incumbent candidates did not have full knowledge this was happening,” Haseley said.
Independent candidates for the at-large race Damon Krane and Iris Virjee both attended the event. In emails, Krane appears to have reached out to Student Senate in the hopes of organizing a forum with all candidates.
In a Facebook message, Krane implied the candidates missing the forum was a deliberate move.
“The Democratic establishment snubbing student voters in a city election, as all the Democratic candidates appear to have done tonight, is nothing new,” Krane said.
Haseley said the candidates all missing the forum was “not intentional on their part for sure.”
Virjee said she did no appreciate the way the Democratic party has portrayed the event.
'I understand that things come up or don't work out, so I won't assume the individual candidates purposely collaborated to cancel, but the way this has been portrayed as a "conspiracy" is very distasteful," Virjee said in a statement.
Molly Pennington, government affairs commissioner for OU Student Senate, confirmed all the Democratic candidates, who are campaigning on the same yard sign, provided individual reasons for not being able to attend the meeting.
Grace said in a text last Thursday that she was sick.
“I’m being cautious for a bit and avoiding any indoor gatherings until I’m symptom free and have a negative test result,” Grace said in a text.
Grace said on Tuesday she had received a negative test.
Athens County Democrats co-chair of social media Abi Scherer said the candidates held a meeting on Sept. 22 to discuss the upcoming forum, and all three said they could not attend the meeting.
“They said they had made it clear they couldn’t attend,” Scherer said.
Haseley also said during the meeting it was expressed that “there was a lack of awareness on the part of the candidates that it was actually happening.”
However, in an email chain between candidates and Pennington, Grace said on Sept. 21 that the date worked for her if held past 5 p.m. Scherer said Grace made it clear on Sept. 22 that “she was probably not going to be able to attend (the candidate forum on Sept. 30).”
“The 30th will work for my schedule also as long as the event is planned for after 5,” Grace said in a Sept 21 email to the event organizers and other participants.
Two hours later, Pennington confirmed the group had reserved Walter Hall on Sept. 30 from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., according to emails. McCarey was not included on the email.
Krane accused the Athens County Democrats of lying about the reasons for the candidates backing out.
"You've just got to marvel at the audacity of Haseley and Scherer," Krane said in an email. "Not only are they lying through their teeth -- they're trying to put the blame on the people who did the work of organizing and participating in voter education efforts where every candidate had an equal opportunity to make their cases to voters."
Virjee also said she was "appalled by the responses given by Democrats to the media for their absence.
"Frankly, I'm appalled by the response given to the journalists on this issue," Virjee said on Facebook. "The organizer of this event was in consistent email communication with all of us during the planning process, and I definitely saw all but one candidate reply to her questions. They were not left out of the discussion. Ms Pennington worked hard to put this together, and was a very neutral and respectful host."
Pennington could not be reached for additional comment.
Ziff told The Athens NEWS he had a scheduling conflict with his job at Donkey Coffee. He said the date would not work for him two weeks in advance and confirmed it a week prior.
“I am at work during this time, and can’t afford to give away a long shift,” Ziff said in a text. “I am not salaried, and as an hourly wage earner, this would be a large monetary loss for me.”
In a September 20 email, Ziff said the Sept. 30 date “might be doable for him,” but he “would need to get a shift covered,” and would check.
McCarey said he could not make the event because he had a prior scheduling commitment at the “Leadership Athens County Cohort Kickoff” at Burr Oak State Park, a leadership program that incorporates service projects.
McCarey said he wasn’t included on several emails, or some were going to the spam folder. He said, however, this didn’t matter.
“But really those minor pieces (of missing emails) were inconsequential — I couldn't make the event anyways,” McCarey said.
McCarey, who is also Ohio University’s LGBT Center director, said while it was unfortunate he missed the forum, the educational and service experience he gained at the leadership retreat, including service work in Glouster, was “reflective” of what he wants to do as a council member.
“What I would have said at the candidate forum is that it's been an honor to serve since appointed in June,” McCarey said.
During the forum, Krane denounced what he said was a “lack of democracy” in Athens as a result of low turnout in city elections.
Since the last City Council election in 2019, two Council Members, Peter Kotses and Beth Clodfelter resigned from their roles, leaving Grace as the only elected at-large council member.
Kotses and Clodfelter were replaced on council in 2021 by Ziff and McCarey respectively and both are seeking reelection to the seats.