Roland denied right to speak at public forum

Just as some political contests, like St Johns County Commission Seat 3, will be settled during the August 14 primary — some others, like County Commission Seat 1 and Seat 5, will not be settled until the General Election in November; The Record and League of Women Voters did not allow those candidates to be heard during their forum last night.

In the District 1 race, St Johns County voters, in all five county commission districts, will decide who will serve as commissioner from the northwest district for the next four years.

Although voters in attendance, and watching at home on Government TV, heard from two contestants in the August Republican Primary Election, that contest is one of two that will not be decided until General Election. Voters were denied a chance to hear from the third candidate, Merrill Roland, whose name will appear on the ballot in November.

But, that does not mean that Roland wasn’t available to answer questions — even if he wasn’t invited. Inside, candidates responded to moderated questions posed by Dr. Patricia Gill, representing the League of Women Voters, and Editor Peter Ellis, representing the St Augustine Record.

Outside, Roland appeared in the parking lot of the St Johns County Administration Palace; dressed in black and white chain-gang stripes, saying he tried repeatedly to gain access so that voters could hear his responses to the same questions posed to his opponents.

He said he went so far as to complain to county administration about their decision to allow the political event to be held on county property — unless it would be open to all legally qualified candidates in the race. No one was inclined to allow him to speak, Roland said.

So, to demonstrate what he sees as the local newspaper, league of women voters and county administration effectively denying him his First Amendment protected right to expression of political speech in a public forum, Roland says he staged the demonstration; complete with a sign that read “1st Amendment Under Arrest”.

The other candidate similarly situated, former Airport Commissioner Randy Brunson, who will face the winner of the Republican Primary Election for District 5 in November, did not join Roland in his protest. Brunson, who like Roland, paid thousands of dollars in qualifying fees to appear on the General Election ballot, said he would have appreciated the same invitation to address the voters as was afforded the three other candidates for the seat.

Roland told Historic City News that he realizes that last night’s forum was a private function, even if it made use of public facilities. The Record and League of Women Voters made a choice to exclude General Election candidates from the process. Roland says that, excepting write-in candidates whose names are not printed on the ballot, candidates in the General Election have just as much chance of being elected as candidates in the Primary Election.

“This race is not over in August,” Roland said. “Whether Commissioner Stevenson or Mr. Iannucci survives the Primary, they still have to defeat me before they can claim that seat.”

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