Tensions run hot during Franklin candidate forum

By CATHERINE MCLAUGHLIN

The Laconia Daily Sun

Published: 09-28-2023 6:00 PM

FRANKLIN — Filling the Franklin Elks Lodge Monday night, a municipal candidate forum hosted by the civic group Choose Franklin began energetically — three candidates for school board and then seven candidates for city council shared their policy views to an attentive audience.

By the end of the event, supporters for each of the two frontrunner mayoral candidates had exchanged verbal harpoons. Choose Franklin’s board has now apologized to voters and candidates.

The forum’s proceedings reflect voters’ fierceness about the campaign and a rivalry between two frontrunners.

During the forum, Desireé McLaughlin levied accusations that incumbent Mayor Jo Brown had “silenced” her by cutting her off during a public meeting and of “major conflicts of interest” on the council. She was gaveled out by moderator Bob Lucas, who stated personal attacks would not be tolerated.

“This town is already divided enough and we do not need to have anybody besmirching anyone else,” Lucas said.

Also during the forum, City Councilor George Dzujna unsuccessfully objected to McLaughlin being allowed to participate during the write-in section, separate from the other two mayoral candidates. McLaughlin said she chose to do so out of protest to the fact write-ins were kept separate from their on-the-ballot competitors.

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During McLaughlin’s remarks, derisive laughter drifted from the section where Brown and her supporters sat. They were then shouted down and sworn at by McLaughlin supporters.

Lucas again gaveled for the crowd to quiet down, and the event concluded not long after.

McLaughlin could not be reached for comment following the event, but she wrote in a Facebook post she found Brown and her supporters’ conduct “ignorant and childish.”

“My speech may have been cut short by the childish antics of Jo Brown and her entourage but the resulting flood of messages from the community this evening showed me that standing in solidarity for equal treatment is worth every insult hurled every single time,” McLaughlin wrote.

Brown said she thought McLaughlin, not speaking alongside the other mayoral candidates, had been advantaged and held to a different standard than her peers.

“She had four minutes to talk about whatever she wanted. ... She wasn’t up there talking about economic development. She wasn’t talking up there about her vision,” Brown said. “She has made a practice of tearing me apart in city council meetings during public forum in July and September, and she was likely going to do that again if the moderator had not stopped her.”

Brown expressed frustration the forum had not followed its longstanding format, where candidates on the ballot in the same race appear together, and that she was not notified McLaughlin would not appear with her.

Brown felt organizers had been “manipulated.”

“This year, in an attempt to accommodate requests to expand the field of representation beyond the City’s standard electoral administrative process, some exceptions were made to our established policies — namely, creating a space for undeclared ‘write-in’ candidates to present their views,” a spokesperson for Choose Franklin wrote in a statement provided to The Daily Sun Wednesday. “These exceptions resulted in unexpected consequences, and we regret making them.”

Dan Darling, a member of Choose Franklin’s board, clarified in an interview that the organization’s practice for the more than 10 years during which it has been hosting forums has been to invite only candidates who appear on the ballot.

The exception was made this year, he said, in response to outcry on Facebook that write-ins would not be able to participate.

Darling said he believed that, if McLaughlin had participated alongside other mayoral candidates, there would not have been any issues.

McLaughlin decided to participate in the write-in section, Darling said. “We didn’t push back — and that was a mistake.”

He also, though, cited both the addition of the write-in section and the allowance of McLaughlin to participate in it as contributing to the disorder.

“People on all sides felt that ultimately what resulted was unfair in some way,” Darling said.

If the organization hosts future forums, the statement read, it would return to its past practice of only inviting candidates who appear on the ballot.

“We dearly apologize to the public and to the candidates,” Darling added, “for not being more proactive and communicating some of these developments.”

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.]]>