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Snellville council candidates debate hung up in controversy

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Tom Witts

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Mike Sabbagh

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Dexter Harrison

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Bobby Howard

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Barbara Bender

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Alisa Boykin

SNELLVILLE — The sparks are already flying in Snellville, a day before the city council candidate forum was set to begin.

Three of the candidates say they will sit out the event, which was scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday at South Gwinnett High School. The trio say they have conflicts that will keep them away. Plus, they don’t want to participate in what they believe is a biased event.

Mayor Kelly Kautz — who is not on the ballot — went so far as to call the event a “political ploy,” intended to make contenders Alisa Boykin, Mike Sabbagh and Dexter Harrison out to be unwilling to debate.

Boykin, who is challenging Tom Witts, said she was taken aback by the invitation to the debate, which is sponsored by Citizens for a Better Snellville and the Snellville Neighborhood Alert Program.

While she had trouble determining a date with a previous sponsor, Boykin said she was not asked her availability for this program.

“It was more beneficial for me to share my platform with people who are interested in hearing it,” said Boykin, who had previously scheduled a meet-and-greet with the Skylars Mill subdivision.

Harrison said he had a previous family obligation and Sabbagh is scheduled to work.

The three also expressed concern that event organizer Matt Czarik is supporting the trio’s opponents, incumbents Witts and Bobby Howard and Barbara Bender, a former councilwoman who is challenging Sabbagh.

Czarik, who recently began the Citizens for a Better Snellville group on Facebook, said he has taken sides in the election but that he intended to create a fair debate, with a television journalist as a moderator and a panel chosen by the candidates to help determine the questions.

“Nobody wants a debate where you have gotcha questions,” he said. “The important thing is who the individuals are, what their vision is for the future and what they have done for the community. … It’s really about issues.”

Czarik said he did not consult any of the candidates before determining the date last week. He simply checked with the moderator and the venue. But he pointed out that the three had been slow to respond to calls for a debate made by a previous organizer.

Bender balked at claims that Czarik is working for her campaign.

She said she also had a previous engagement when she learned of the forum but rescheduled it.

“The accusation that I put it together is not correct,” she said, adding that she found a debate “daunting” during her last campaign but said it would be valuable for voters.

“I thought it was good to let people see us side by side,” she said. “I think it’s an opportunity for the voters to be able to see everybody.”

Harrison, who is challenging Howard, said he has a family matter he has to attend to.

“We’ve been campaigning for over three months and they waited until the last two weeks to talk about a forum,” he said.

Sabbagh said he would have liked to participate in a fair debate but a key project requires him at the office.

“I don’t like last-minute debates because it makes both people unsure or unprepared, but I love a good planned debate. They bring a community together,” he said, adding that he wanted voters to know that he would make himself available to them in any way possible and plans a town hall meeting after the election.

“Debates by themselves do not tell the whole picture,” he said.

For now, Czarik still plans to host the debate.

“We’re still hopeful they are going to show up,” he said.