Astro-Turf Protesters and Fake Town Halls

Pete Peterson
Dean, Pepperdine University Graduate School of Public Policy

For folks like me who work with or for local government, the new NBC sitcom, “Parks and Recreation” has become a guilty pleasure. The show follows the humorous trials and tribulations of Parks & Rec Director, Leslie Knope (played by Amy Poehler) in the mythical town of Pawnee, Indiana. But when a recent episode focused on a local “town hall meeting” about the building of park, my mind leapt to those other so-called “town halls” being staged around the country.

In this particular installment, entitled “Canvassing”, Pawnee has received Federal Stimulus monies and is looking for “shovel-ready” projects. The city sees the conversion of a dump into a park as such an opportunity, and Leslie is directed to get public support by promoting a “Town Hall Meeting”. Though cautioned by the City Planner not “to go to the public too early” – as no architectural plans or environmental assessments have been made for the site – Leslie pushes on fearlessly, believing that no one could oppose a park. Within minutes of beginning the forum, things begin to disintegrate as residents realize that they are not going to engage in an honest dialogue about the park, but were simply invited to accede to a project pre-ordained by their government. Even though they are fictional the well-intentioned officials of Pawnee offer some great advice to our Congressional leaders who are fanning out across the country:

Stop calling these events “Town Hall Meetings”. A term that has been bastardized in recent decades by various political campaigns, the “Town Hall Meeting” – a phrase originating from “town meeting” – is an actual public decision-making process dating back centuries, with a fairly specific set of rules and goals. Still used by towns in New England, the town meeting is an annual process in which an elected moderator leads a discussion (usually bounded by Robert’s Rules of Order) about local policy issues – from budgets to land use items – where residents participate in the decision through deliberating and voting or passing that power on to their elected representatives. Whatever the format, two things result from a town meeting: issues are debated, and decisions reached.

Even though most of us have never participated in such an event, the name still conjures thoughts of a participatory process, where, if participants are not able to make an actual decision, they can at least offer opinions on an issue that will be honestly considered. While there have been organized disruptions at many of these health care gatherings, reports from many of them indicate that things turned ugly once participants learned that they were there solely to be “informed” about the health care proposals – not to participate in a real debate. Listen closely to the comments by Congressional leaders (and, recently, the President), and you hear the words of people who come to these meetings with the understanding that they are there to teach attendees the benefits of their reform plans.

In their recent USA Today op-ed, Democratic House leaders Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer wrote that “This month, despite the disruptions, members of Congress will listen to their constituents back home and explain reform legislation. We are confident that our principles of affordable, quality health care will stand up to any and all critics.” Do you detect a note of condescension there? This is hardly the description of a true town meeting – an “information session”, maybe.

Also confounding any real participation is the conundrum of the Legislative timeline: Congressmen go before their constituents with a piece of legislation that has already been passed – with no public involvement, while Senators arrive at these “town halls” without a bill to discuss. You might recall, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’ weak defense of Senator Arlen Specter at a recent Philadelphia meeting: “The Senate bill isn’t written so don’t boo the senator for not reading a bill that isn’t written.” It illustrates the importance of timing in civic engagement (go too late and participation is obviated, too early, and there is little to talk about), which, in many ways, makes nationwide deliberation untenable.
It was another Democratic leader, the late, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who once said, “Civic Engagement is a device whereby public officials induce non-public individuals to act in a way the public officials desire.” That definitely was Leslie Knope’s approach to the public – they were people to be informed and lobbied. They responded by actually (gasp!) wanting to be involved. It seems that our national leaders are learning the same lesson: when you call for a “town hall meeting”, mean it.

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