By: Sharon Aron Baron
A Congressman that was late, irrelevant questions posed to elected officials, a three-hour event to a bored, restless crowd of teens, plus, a trophy that was named after a city commissioner. These were some of the complaints from the last Teen Political Forum that were brought up in a city commission workshop retreat.
Although the event was held back in April, because of sunshine laws, city commissioners were unable to discuss the complaints that they received regarding the forum until all elected officials were in the same room. On August 3, Mayor Skip Campbell addressed those concerns to Commissioner Larry Vignola who led the event.
With over 1,500 students in attendance, one of the issues was the lack of faculty oversight. The event started 15 minutes late due to waiting for Congressman Deutch, then the Q & A didn’t begin until 30 minutes after the event began – for a total of 45 minutes or more the students were sitting in their seats before hearing from the panelists. One commissioner was booed while walking onstage, and after a three hour-long event, students had difficulties settling down or staying in their seats.
Questions given to elected officials were not reviewed by an adult in advance, and Vignola said he chose not to review them in order to not have an advantage over the others. However, this gave some of the panelists bizarre questions.
“A question was asked of me what type of underwear I wear,” said Mayor Skip Campbell. “There has to be an adult that is in charge of making sure the questions are appropriate, almost like a judge, so we’re not putting people in the position of answering stupid questions.”
Vignola oversaw 50 student volunteers at this year’s Teen Political Forum, versus 20 in the past, leaving many without important roles. A two-minute introduction video which featured Vignola walking through the halls of various schools did not include any student volunteers, and the quality of speeches by the students weren’t voted on to qualify which students were chosen as the speakers or moderators. Instead, Vignola left it to the students to decide among themselves based on who had been a volunteer for the forum the longest.
“The kids came up with an agreement to allow three kids to give the speeches and it became a ‘Larry Vignola Show’ after that,” he said.
Vignola said that next year staff would proofread the speeches ahead of time.
“The sad thing about the sunshine laws is that we can’t talk,” said Campbell, “so what happens is that I get the complaints. There were concerns about the trophy. You’re naming this trophy and event after you – and some members were offended by this.”
Vignola stated that he personally paid $500 for the trophy and let the students decide what they wanted to call the trophy while he was out of town.
“It is a City-run project,” said Campbell. “If it is, should we be having any commissioner’s name or any mayors – or any persons instead of having the City of Coral Springs trophy?”
Vice Mayor Dan Daley who said he was a product of the Teen Political Forum, said that this year’s event was out of control. “It was borderline embarrassing.”
“I do take issue when we’re practically bribing kids to come, whether it’s extra credit, free food, service hours, this thing, that thing, the other thing – you start to get away from the purpose of the act. You have this great music and great videos of Larry walking through a hallway for 20 minutes and all this other stuff that gets everyone all excited, then you expect them to sit there quietly when you have 1,500 kids. Everyone was so riled up, that this was viewed as an appropriate response. I take a huge issue with that.”
Daley said that principals he spoke to said they were not asked to provide teacher volunteers. “I actually spent time, called around and apologized,” he said.
“This is not the individual commissioner’s show,” said Daley. “I remember when all of us laughed when this was the ‘Roy Gold’ show. Now you’ve got 1,500 kids, and granted, you’re telling us they voted to do this and they voted to do that? How convenient. Every single time it’s without you.”
Daley felt too much time was spent on irrelevant questions and raffle tickets, leaving many kids who didn’t get their questions answered.
“Listen, I’m not saying we should stifle participation or excitement – at least as far as I’m concerned it’s gotten away from its purpose.”
Former Mayor Roy Gold, who created the Teen Political Forum and ran it for over seven years, was asked a question by Vignola during the workshop and was given the floor. “You [Vignola] have stated here today that you don’t screen questions, you don’t screen things, you don’t tell people what to do.”
Gold proceeded to tell a story about the last year he led the event after leaving office due to term limits. A student mentioned Gold by name in the pre-presentation of her speech and thanked him, however, when he attended the event, his name was omitted.
“What you did with that student – and you’re an adult supervisor. You told that student ‘Do not mention Roy Gold’s name. This is not the Roy Gold event. This is a City of Coral Springs event,’” said Gold.
Vignola responded and said he was threatened by a couple members of the city commission that if Gold’s name was mentioned, they would not go on stage. “What was I supposed to do, what was I supposed to do? Ruin the whole event over mentioning somebody by name?”
Gold told the commission that when Vignola did that, he took it to heart, but this year, he saw that the new trophy is now called the ‘Vignola Trophy’.
“And you told me, ‘Roy, the reason why we’re not mentioning your name is this is now a City of Coral Springs event.’ Your name is an embarrassment after you told me that this is a Coral Springs event, and then you put your name on the cup?”
Gold reminded Vignola that he wasn’t the first to give money either. When the city had no money and couldn’t afford T-shirts, he gave $500.
Daley wanted Vignola to know that no one discounted that he had put in a lot of work in to the Teen Political Forum and stated that the prior years were excellent and to not take the criticism personally.
“My frustration is that it’s such a tremendous program and I just want to make sure it stays that way.”
He suggested more control by Joyce Campos who puts together the entire Martin Luther Day weekend, and get her stronger input into the program.
“This is a city event, these kids can’t be controlled – and we have to control them and making this into what it is: a Teen Political Forum,” said Campbell who concluded the meeting by saying, “Hopefully, the trophy will have a new name on it.”