The Good Old Town Hall Meeting
A couple weeks ago I attended an event that focused on the ways technology can help promote civic engagement. Technology, of course, offers a multitude of options for organizing for causes and providing feedback to public officials. But, let’s face it, at the end of the day there’s no replacement for the good old town hall meeting. For better or worse.
As someone whose job it is to attend these meetings on a fairly regular basis, I am still blown away by the level of vitriol and just plain rudeness that is so often on display. And I am not quite sure what accounts for it.
The meeting that sticks out for me the most was a housing element update in one Bay Area community. All seemed calm at first – the members of the planning commission and consultants gave an overview of the process, the proposed changes, had a nice video prepared that laid out the potential new policies. And then came time for public involvement, complete with maps, sticky notes, roaming assistants, all with the intent of giving the attendants an opportunity to contribute to the process.
Que pandemonium. Attendee after attendee broke into a tirade of one kind or another – against specific parts of the housing element, against the fact that they were filming the discussion, even against the fact that they were being asked to weigh in at all (“We’re no experts!”). People were constantly interrupting the speakers, emphatically demanding that their specific question be addressed right now. Some in the back were not-so-quietly expressing their disapproval of the entire event, and one grown man sitting next to me was on the verge of a sobbing breakdown. Ain’t civic engagement great?
Whenever I think back on this meeting I wonder just what is it about public meetings that suddenly cause presumably well balanced and polite adults to throw away the customary rules of respectful discourse?
I’ll put out a couple of my thoughts on this – one, we certainly aren’t shown the best example from our most prominent elected officials. Perhaps you tuned in to the California gubernatorial debate between Jerry Brown and Neel Kashkari. Some of the headlines after the event read – “Brown and Kashkari Spar in Heated Debate” “Fiery Kashkari Wins on Points, Brown Resorts to Low Blows” “No Knockout Moment for Kashkari.”
Wait a minute, this was the two men running to be the chief executive of our state, not a recap of pro boxing, right?
Then, many of the “conversations” that occur on the mainstream media are, of course, no different. Combative political dialogue apparently boosts ratings. I’ll always appreciate Jon Stewart’s appearance on Crossfire in October of 2004, where he unapologetically called out the hosts, saying: “It’s hurting America. Here is what I wanted to tell you guys: Stop… You have a responsibility to the public discourse, and you fail miserably.” Not long after the show was canceled, but of course that brand of political dialogue lives on.
There are those whose intention in attending public meetings is to theatrically lambast public officials. Readers from Santa Cruz may be familiar with Robert Norse, whom my colleague wrote about in a previous blog post and then spoke with in a radio interview. Norse is very upfront about his tactics, saying in the interview that he believes in shaming public officials into doing the right thing.
I am all for holding officials accountable, but does every problem require a bazooka?
Now I don’t think there was ever any golden age in civic discourse. A look back in history shows that if anything political debates were far more fiery than they are today. But still, as my colleague wrote, engaging in civics at any level is not just inconvenient, “it’s downright unpleasant.”
I don’t necessarily have a solution to propose, but I will tell you this – the prospect of more people getting involved in the civic process gives me hope. Political researcher Morris P. Fiorina wrote a book titled “The Myth of a Polarized America” in which he argued that, even among typical hot-button issues, every-day Americans are much more closely aligned in their views than we are led to believe in the media. It’s just that engaging in civics doesn’t stack up high in the priority list for most Americans.
Which is the problem Civinomics works every day to solve. So if you haven’t already checked it out, we’ve created a voting forum that lays out proposals created by regular Santa Cruzans to address water challenges in the city. Note that the ideas that will be presented at the October 16th Santa Cruz Water Supply Convention: Our Water, Our Future are marked as “adopted” and show up in green. This will be an all-day event at the Civic Auditorium where idea authors can discuss the details of their proposals with the public.
As I said earlier, there’s no replacement for the good old town hall meeting. I just hope we won’t have to give out helmets.