Finally, after 500 days in office, Rep. Jason Lewis (R-Woodbury) held town halls. Or did he?
He did have three, one-hour events in one day that he called town halls. Afterward, he gave media interviews and posted on his offical Facebook page, insisting that "ensuring a robust dialogue" with his constituents has been a top priority.
I received a ticket to one of his town halls and this is my experience.
When we went in after being screened by security, we were given three notecards and told to write down our questions and include our name and contact information and put them in a plastic bin for the moderator to draw out for Lewis to answer.
In his initial remarks, Lewis reminded us of the number of telephone town halls, employee town halls, and meetings with groups he's had. What he didn't say was that each of these events was with a handpicked audience answering pre-screened questions.
That is also how he managed these three events, since we had to apply for a ticket to attend and they selected who would attend and controlled the questions.
I applied for the Lakeville event and was given a ticket to the Wabasha event, 75 miles away. I talked to others who were given tickets to events much farther away from what they requested, and people who live in Wabasha who didn't receive a ticket. Perhaps that accounts for the many empty seats.
At least a quarter of the seats were empty in the small room. People who requested tickets but didn't receive them showed up anyway. But when they asked if they could fill those empty seats, his staff refused. In fact, his staff even barred a child from entering who came with her mother who did have a ticket.
At the beginning of the town hall, 15 minutes was alloted to anybody who wanted to ask questions. They were allowed a mere 60 seconds to share their thoughts. I guess this was supposed to be the interactive portion of the event.
We were told to line up and the moderator held a microphone for us to speak into without any back and forth exchange possible. Lewis took notes and then made comments after everybody sat down. If one of us attempted to respond to what he was saying, his staff person would rush over to shush us and the moderator would admonish us. Hardly the "robust dialogue" that Lewis claims.
The rest of the hour consisted of the moderator drawing out a few notecards and Lewis talking, which felt more like a lecture to a captive audience. If Lewis wants to claim that "robust dialogue" and listening to his constituents are top priorities, then he has to allow us to actually speak instead of actively discouraging it. Three people became so frustrated they walked out.
At the end, I called out to him about the video recording he was doing. He admitted they also have audio files of the telephone town halls. I asked if he would make them available on his official website. Neither he nor his staff made a firm committment to do that.
I've been attending town halls held by many different elected officials over many years. I have never had to request a ticket, they were all held in public venues, in locations accessible by public transportation, open to all, and they managed to allow for actual dialogue. If neither Lewis nor his staff know how to arrange an interactive town hall, they should work with the businesses that do.
In my mind, Lewis held three small private events, by invitation only, and limited the number of people who could attend by their choice of the venue and location (the closest was 30 miles from the most concentrated population of his constituents).
Town hall or a live version of the Jason Lewis Radio Show, paid for by the taxpayer?