JOLIET — Mayor Tom Giarrante said he won't take part in a March 12 mayoral candidate debate hosted by neighborhood associations and local organizations, calling the event "clearly biased" and “manipulated” by his opponent's campaign to “be anything but fair.”
The debate is scheduled ahead of the April 7 election, where Giarrante will face Councilman Bob O'Dekirk and Andy Mihelich, chairman of the Joliet Junior College board.
Erik Smith, a spokesman for Giarrante's campaign, said Friday the debate's moderator, John Sheridan, with the Cunningham Neighborhood Association, is a well-known O'Dekirk supporter. And Councilman Jim McFarland, another O'Dekirk supporter, is holding a fundraiser at the same location just prior to the debate, Smith said.
“It's a clear coordination to try to trick voters, and our campaign, with an over-the-top biased debate,” he said. “With McFarland's campaign fundraiser, and an O'Dekirk supporter as the moderator, the crowd is clearly being built.”
O'Dekirk challenged the mayor's assertion that he had something to do with setting up the debate.
“He's just now making this an issue because he's afraid to get on the stage and have taxpayers asking questions,” O'Dekirk said. “I had nothing to do with it. [The neighborhood associations] called me with the idea, asking if I would appear.”
O'Dekirk said he issued a news release earlier in the week with an “open-ended offer” to Giarrante: Choose his own moderator and pick a new venue.
“It's just a cop-out. It's just an excuse,” O'Dekirk said
Smith said the mayor is open to conversations about having a new debate at a later date with a new venue and agree-upon moderator.
Sheridan said while he may be opinionated during Joliet City Council meetings against some of the mayor's proposals and policies, a debate is a different venue.
“I'm only a moderator in a sense that I'm reading the questions. These questions are being submitted by the public,” Sheridan said. “It's going to be done fairly. It's no secret the mayor isn't fast on his feet. … Again, I'm not going to embarrass myself by picking on someone. I will be respectful of all the candidates."
McFarland issued a statement Saturday saying his event that night is "my fourth annual St. Patrick's Day fundraiser" and "has been planned for months." McFarland called the mayor's withdrawal from the debate "another one of his anti-transparency tactics."
Smith said Giarrante is attending other mayoral debates scheduled for March.