Tracking Town Halls:
Do Unscripted Constituent Public Gatherings Matter?
When I started advocating for healthcare reform, I wanted to attend my congressman's town halls. I called his office about the town hall schedule. The staff would never give me a straight answer. Then I would read about Rep.Mike Fitzpatrick's (then PA 08, now PA 01) town hall appearances in the newspaper. Why didn't the staff tell me? I was angry. I and every constituent were being played. I thought about what to do. I decided to call the office. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.“Are there town halls today, tomorrow, or in the future?” The staff would have to tell me or lie. This went on for almost 2 1/2 years. (See call log below.)Why would Rep. Fitzpatrick go to such lengths to avoid town halls? Was he that afraid of unscripted exchanges with his constituents? What started as an attempt to be an engaged citizen wanting to attend town halls turned into an unwitting exercise in exposing a pretender. Read full account here.
11.8.2012 Theresa takes Art As Social Inquiry to Rep. Fitzpatrick’s office (R-PA 8) with Pennsylvania Working Families and Penn Action. We petitioned the congressman (through his staff) to hold a series of well-publicized town hall meetings. Theresa’s focus on healthcare was included in the list of issues such as jobs and the upcoming fiscal cliff that the group would like to see discussed in public town halls. Unexpectedly, we encountered the Congressman walking to his office. We also went into the congressman’s office to further explain our concerns.
A town hall meeting is an informal arena where citizens can voice their opinions on issues that affect the community at large. The primary purpose of these meetings is to get feedback, whether positive or negative, from concerned citizens. Town hall meetings also foster diverse opinions, authentic communication, mutual understanding, and transparency between organization and citizen.
It’s been a few years since this performance art piece, Tracking Town Halls: Do Unscripted Constituent Public Gatherings Matter? ended.
During the time I crossed paths with Mike Fitzpatrick, healthcare reform was (and still is) a major issue. I supported the Affordable Care Act a.k.a Obamacare — and still do – as a start to addressing medical bankruptcies, the high uninsured and under-insured numbers, job-lock, the unquantifiable psychological trauma people experience dealing with the US healthcare/health insurance system, and even the deaths attributable to those unable to access care.
I wanted to attend town halls and take my turn at the microphone asking my congressman about his healthcare reform views. I also wanted to help shape the dialog for the benefit of the town hall attendees, as I am often moved by what others say. Town halls were (are?) an American institution or so I thought. I thought the simple thing to do was to call my congressman's office and get the town hall schedule. I was naive. I thought our representatives welcomed engaged citizens. No. I had A LOT to learn.
My congressman's staff would not give me a straight answer. I didn't like it. I wondered what would happen if I called the office every day and asked the staff if the congressman was having town halls. I think I believed they would just give up, give me the information, and that would be the end of it. But no. The staff doubled-down.
I spent over two years asking Rep. Fitzpatrick's office if there was a town hall. Fitzpatrick and his staff's outsized reaction to a simple constituent request surprised and alarmed me. The congressman and his staff stonewalled me. I was shocked. Why? I then doubled down and started calling every day. There was something more here. I justified the time and energy I was putting out by calling this odd turn of events performance art. The experience became surreal. Why was the office instructed not to give me information? I decided to track the staff's responses to the question, "Was the congressman having a town hall today, tomorrow or in the future?" It got weird for everybody.
I concluded that my congressman had a phobic obsession with avoiding impromptu policy talk. He went to extraordinary lengths to control speech. He visited umpteen businesses and called them town halls. Who challenges a congressman at his or her job? These were not real town halls. Eventually,all real town halls stopped.
The log entries reveal a kind of naiveté and indignation on my part that only the uninitiated exhibit. I was a political neophyte.By the time this 29-month town hall log ended, I was very schooled in the congressman’s subtle moves to try to derail someone he saw as a political combatant – me. I, on the other hand, saw myself as an advocate for the healthcare law, one who unwittingly unmasked a politician who was, as I saw it, faking it by going to extraordinary lengths to avoid real dialog at town halls.
The following is the town hall log as it was written from mid-2012 to Nov-2014.
TOWN HALL LOG
Please note: Unfortunately, information about ALL town halls has not been forthcoming from Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick’s Bucks County office. Here is the list of town halls to-date that the congressman and his staff have NOT disclosed: 8/2/2013 Springtown, PA. 8/4/2013 Salford Twp., PA.
Rep. Fitzpatrick Office Phone: 215.579.8102