A political event planned for Tuesday evening by the campaign team for candidate Eugene Yu, who is challenging incumbent U.S. Rep. Rick Allen for Georgia's 12th Congressional District seat, has been moved to a different location. It will now be held at Luetta Moore Park on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Statesboro instead of Ogeechee Technical College, which declined on Monday to host the event.
The event originally was scheduled as a debate between Yu and Allen, as well as the three Bulloch County sheriff's race candidates. However, when it failed to draw participation from the four other candidates invited, officials at OTC decided that the school will not host the one-man show, claiming that the event now appears to be more of a political rally than a debate and that hosting such would violate the school's policy.
So, Yu's office, intent on providing the public with a chance to learn about his campaign, decided to move the event to Luetta Moore Park. It will take place from 6-8 p.m., and both OTC and Yu's campaign will have representatives at the college to redirect attendees to the new location.
Barry Turner, vice president for college advancement at OTC, said on Monday, "We would have been more than happy to host a debate for those invited," but neither Allen nor the local sheriff candidates - Keith Howard (Democrat), Jared Akins (Republican) and Noel Brown (Republican) - plan to attend, he said.
Allen declined the invitation, telling the Statesboro Herald via a statement released by his office Wednesday that he would not debate Yu due to a political dispute. The decision was made several days prior to the Statesboro Herald being notified on Wednesday of the debate.
"Once Mr. Yu files his personal financial disclosure report with the House clerk, gives a full accounting of where the over three-quarters of a million dollars he loaned his 2014 campaign came from and explains why the Federal Election Commission says he did not have sufficient income to loan his campaign that money and why the FEC finds reason to believe that his campaign violated federal campaign finance law, will Congressman Allen then even think about debating him," said Tim Baker, Allen's campaign spokesman.
Sheriff candidates Akins and Howard also said last week that they do not plan to attend, due to short notice and previous commitments. The third candidate, Brown, said that he had not even received an invitation to participate as of Thursday afternoon and is scheduled to attend a town hall meeting in Register at the time of the event.
When asked about the decision to include local sheriff candidates in a debate originally planned for congressional candidates, Scott Wheeler, the spokesman for Yu's campaign, said that when his office learned that Allen would not attend, they added the sheriff's race to the mix instead of canceling the event, as the venue at OTC had already been reserved.
Turner said that Yu's office had not been charged for reserving the auditorium, so no refund is due, adding that the usual $150 reservation fee was waived because a debate is considered a community service.
Bill Thomas, local spokesman for Yu's campaign, said on Monday that he is the host of the event and does not agree with OTC's decision not to host the gathering the day before the event.
"I think it is unfortunate. I didn't ask OTC to endorse us," he said. "We spent money advertising it. It is patently unfair, but we are moving it. We have a responsibility to the electorates to follow through."
Yu said he was "very disappointed" and also disagreed with OTC's policy.
"Why should I get punished when the other person will not respond?" he asked.
He argued that Allen's excuse for not debating him is faulty.
"That was 2014," Yu said. "This is a 2016 debate. He is a sitting congressman ... with a fiduciary responsibility to tell constituents what he has been doing (since being elected to office)."
Any candidate in any race is invited to attend and participate in Tuesday's event, Thomas said on Thursday.
"It is going to be worth attending," he said, adding that Yu will have "video clips of Allen and will discuss the clips and pertaining issues with the audience."
"We're still going to try to inform voters they do have a choice in this election," he said.
Herald reporter Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.