The annual "Candidate Forum on the Environment" at Earthplace in Westport is in jeopardy, with a candidate in the race for the 136th District state representative seat saying she may not participate because of scheduling conflicts.

Democratic candidate Jonathan Steinberg has committed to the forum, but his opponent, Republican Nitzy Cohen, has not. They are running for the seat vacated by Democrat Joe Mioli, who is retiring.

"The invitations went out verbally just after the Republican primary," said Matthew Mandell, an Earthplace trustee and moderator of the debate. Cohen "is still claiming that she has scheduling issues and can't find the time. I find that disturbing. I would expect all candidates would want to come forward and participate, it is part of democracy."

Mandell, a Democrat and member of Westport's Representative Town Meeting, added, "Every candidate should make the time to get in front of the public."

The forum, which includes a question-and-answer period as well as a discussion of the issues, has been held the past two years, first featuring state Senate candidates and then selectmen contenders. It focuses on environmental issues in Westport and the state.

Cohen said she is working with Mandell to find a mutually acceptable date for the forum, but said her "schedule is very tight for the evening times."

"Matt and Steinberg have all the time in the world. I am running a campaign and a business, and it is not easy to put it in with their schedule," she said.

The two debates already scheduled in the state representative race -- hosted by the League of Women's Voters and News 12 "Focus on Connecticut" -- are adequate, Cohen said, if scheduling for the environmental forum does not work out.

"Two debates are enough," Cohen said, adding that when she ran against Mioli in 2008 for this same seat, the only debate was held five days before the election. "I am trying to look at our schedule in October, but we already have two debates scheduled when everyone else has one. What is enough? Three? Four? Five?"

Mandell said he has offered Cohen's campaign nine or 10 possible dates for the event, about two choices a week starting with Sept. 21 and 22, which have already passed. He still hopes the forum can be scheduled during October.

He said the Earthplace debate is important, "especially because it is on environmental issues. It is one of the hot topics in society, how we deal with the environment."

Steinberg said he is also busy and "has other things to do," including responsibilities as a member of the Representative Town Meeting, specifically with the Deer Management Commission. However, he added, this debate is worthwhile. "We have had plenty of time to find one evening that works. I will clear my schedule for it. It is important."

Steinberg said he thought it is "ironic" because "two years ago she [Cohen] was all over Joe [Mioli] about not debating. It was so important to her." Now, Steinberg said she has gone "back and forth," and he is disappointed that they can not seem to work out the Earthplace debate. He also said the "Focus on Connecticut" appearance is expected to be more like a discussion.

"The community is enriched by these annual environmental debates," Steinberg said. "I feel like Westport is an enlightened community." There is a lot of "sensitivity" when it comes to environmental issues, he said, especially since Westport has been progressive and serves an example to other communities.

"Voters should have a fair impression on opinions and impressions related to the environment," Steinberg said. "It is part of the puzzle. It is not about partisanship, it is about helping Westport voters understand the issues."

Cohen said she believes the environment will be an important topic at the two already-scheduled debates. "I'm sure it will. The League of Women Voters is very in tune with the environment, as is `Focus on Connecticut,' " she said. "It will come up. But I have no doubt that Matt has a genuine concern about the environment."

Mandell said not having the Earthplace forum would "be a big loss for the residents, who should have a fair assessment of the candidates."

"It is troubling that any candidate could not find the time to come and speak in front of the public," he said.

Earthplace will not host a forum in this year's race for the 26th state Senate District, which pits incumbent Republican Toni Boucher against Westporter John Hartwell. Mandell said that since Boucher and Hartwell are the same two candidates for the seat as two years ago, Earthplace wanted to provide a forum for new voices. It will also co-sponsor a 4th Congressional District debate at the Doubletree Hotel in Norwalk at the end of October.