Regulars and Shorts

Town halls: Community forum or curated pep rallies?

By Elisabeth Luntz

How town halls are conducted determines whether or not voices are heard.

Jason Chaffetz’s rude awakening at his February town hall was an indication of the political climate in Utah and across the United States. Various organizations and individual people are pushing back against political communication methods that marginalize diverse and opposing voices and constrain the public dialogue. Some view town hall substitutes as controlled media environments that intend to manufacture public consent rather than reflect it.

After Chaffetz’s public rebuke, Utah Republican Party Chairman James Evans immediately took to various media forums, including a press conference, to admonish the people who attended Chaffetz’s public meeting. He made false accusations of violence and arrests and maligned those in attendance as “thuggish,” instructing the State’s Congressional delegation to delay or avoid town hall meetings due to “intimidation and violence.” He labeled the “thugs” as “left-wing groups,” specifically calling out Utah Indivisible and the Utah Democratic Party, among others.

While the over 2,000 in attendance were at times frustrated, impolite and even rude, Cottonwood Heights Police Department reported the crowd to be “lawful.” Footage from the event showed a sincere effort by people to ask questions, many of which went unanswered, regarding public lands, climate science, education, immigration, investigations against the Trump administration, cabinet appointees and the future of health care.

Strong public dissent should come as no surprise. While opinion polls reflect historically low approval ratings for President Trump, the Utah delegation— Hatch, Lee, Love, Stewart, Bishop and Chaffetz—has voted with him 100% of the time, according to analytics from the website FiveThirtyEight. These public town halls are capturing natural reactions.

The power of the forum

The town hall forum predates the formation of our country. The first such recorded meeting occurred in the Puritan town of Dorcester, Massachusetts in 1633 and it established a model for future town hall meetings that would pervade colonial American politics.

While the practice of public meetings may seem quaint or antiquated, there are many benefits to public communication as opposed to some of our more modern and socially removed digital communications. Part of it amounts to the power of directly being spoken to and speaking with someone. One might think that email has opened access to our representatives but, in reality, there’s no guarantee your representative even reads it.

Even more important, your fellow constituents never read it. The communication is isolated. This allows for diverse opinions to die in anonymity. Likewise, public opinion polls often frame and limit the possible positions on issues.

In the town hall forum, a wide and unlimited range of constituent concerns are publicly acknowledged, the questions are unpredictable and people have a chance to react when their representative dodges the question. There’s a fundamental aspect of communication that requires this live interaction. There is empowerment that comes from knowing others share or witness your concerns.

Utah reps and their town hall reputations

ORRIN HATCH has managed to avoid public town halls, instead holding meetings without public disclosure at a private nursing home and at the private research software firm, Qualtrics, based in Provo. Hatch posted on his Facebook account, after the Qualtrics meeting, “Really enjoyed my second town hall meeting of the recess today with about 700 Utahns to cap off a great visit to Qualtrics in Provo. The topics we discussed included immigration, education, tech issues, working with the Trump administration, and how we can come together with those who share different viewpoints, among other things.” There was no accompanying public record of the meeting.

MIKE LEE called almost 100,000 Utahns for his tele-town hall and reached over 700,000 people on Facebook according to his spokesman, Conn Carroll.

ROB BISHOP has not had a public town hall since August.

MIA LOVE states she has not ruled out town halls in the future but her current public presence is limited. She will meet only with small groups of five people or fewer, no recordings and no “media.” This minimizes her exposure and chance of being accountable for her views and effectively guarantees that the discussions in the meetings won’t have a wide audience.

Another forum employed by Mia Love is the call-in town hall. In this process, participants must call in and register for the meeting. They are then called back at the beginning of the meeting and asked to disclose questions to the phone handlers. This process allows for pre-screening of questions. During one such call-in meeting, ultra-conservative Rep. John Ratcliffe (Texas) participated on the calls, effectively denying constituents the opportunity to directly address Rep. Love. During this call-in meeting, which Love acknowledged would focus on healthcare, Ratcliffe suggested people should be more concerned with the national debt. Mia Love insisted several times during the meeting that 87% of Americans were happy with their healthcare before the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), although a source confirming that could not be found.

When one senior caller said that Love’s repeated characterization of the ACA being in a “death spiral” and “unsustainable” was fear mongering, instead of addressing the caller’s concerns Ratcliffe retorted, “Sounds like he’s not a persuadable kind of person” and that his opinions were “in the minority.”

Meet the opposition

DONALD AGUIRRE is a founding member of Utah Indivisible, an organization of over 7,000 online “constituent activists” connected to a national Indivisible movement that seeks to educate, organize and mobilize members to have informed interactions with their representatives. For groups like these, live town halls are an essential and unique part of the communication process as they are the most transparent.

Aguirre says of Congresswoman Love’s tele-town hall, “Let’s be clear, tele-town hall is a fancy way of saying controlled conference call. Callers were cut off mid-question, she had Representative John Ratcliffe of Texas take questions for her, using him as a crutch as she limped along for the hour. The banter between Love and Ratcliffe wasted time…it was all fluff. She took only eight questions, primarily concerned with losing some aspect of health care and access to birth control. [Love] has at least four opportunities a month to hold a town hall, as she admits to coming home every weekend, but she chooses not to.”

Just two weeks after Jason Chaffetz’s nationally covered town hall meeting, MADALENA McNEIL, founder of Utahns Speak Out, began organizing a public town inviting all of the Utah Congressional delegation to attend. When not one accepted the invitation, McNeil reached out to state legislators and eight accepted: Senators Brian Shiozawa (R) and Todd Weiler (R), and Representatives Angela Romero (D), Rebecca Edwards (R), Steve Eliason (R), Brian King (D), Patrice Arent (D) and Timothy Hawkes (R). They were given two minutes to speak to the crowd of approximately 1,200 people, addressing their issue of choice. The majority of the evening was spent listening to the voices of the constituents and hearing from over 25 of the event’s sponsors (organizations concerned with civil rights, immigration, LGBTQ rights, third parties, term limits, healthcare, environment, redistricting, Native sovereignty and public lands).

Senator Weiler said he attended the public Town Hall For All because he values citizen input. “I believe that elected officials need to be accountable,” said Weiler. “Town halls continue to be highly relevant and I plan to continue to hold several each year.” Patrice Arent agreed, adding, “The format of the Town Hall for All was particularly helpful because we received input from so many community organizations as opposed to more traditional town halls where legislators spend most of the time providing an overview of legislation. We also had a lot of time before and after the formal presentations to have personal conversations with the attendees. I always look for opportunities to interact with my constituents. These range from formal town hall and council meetings to gatherings at local bagel shops, community events and knocking on doors. I always learn something new.”

For Senator Weiler there was also one last important take away from the Town Hall for All. “There are a lot of people frustrated and hurting right now,” he said. If other elected officials took the time to listen they might hear this, too, and hopefully react by redirecting their work to address the needs and frustrations of their constituents.

Elisabeth Luntz studied social ecology and cognitive science at the University of California. Her profile on Adrian Dybwad appeared in last month’s CATALYST.

This article was originally published on April 1, 2017.