Chronicle Newspaper Guest Commentary: Congresswoman Defends Use of ‘Community Coffee Meetings’
Last month, I hosted my 12th Southwest Washington “community coffee meeting” in Chehalis. There were some media inquiries and news stories looking at how and why I hold these events, and I’d like to give a detailed account here. Folks in Southwest Washington deserve to know the facts.
Last month, I hosted my 12th Southwest Washington “community coffee meeting” in Chehalis.
There were some media inquiries and news stories looking at how and why I hold these events, and I’d like to give a detailed account here. Folks in Southwest Washington deserve to know the facts.
Providing Southwest Washington residents with the opportunity to speak face-to-face with their member of Congress is a responsibility of my job. In my first 10 months in office, I have hosted multiple traditional town hall meetings in large auditoriums throughout the district.
For these, my office shares the details with local newspapers, who publish them well in advance. Here’s what we experienced: well-organized interest groups would use the information to mobilize their members — many from Portland to Seattle — to follow me around to each event and protest. Audience numbers swelled up in size, giving only a small fraction of attendees the chance to ask questions. Those who were able to speak often had questions interrupted by booing or screaming from others. You can see an example for yourself; watch my Vancouver town hall online at www.cityofvancouver.us/cvtv.
Organized groups from Seattle and Portland got their messages across. But my first responsibility is to hear from the people I represent, who live in Southwest Washington. And I have no obligation to create a stage for people outside our district to come and put on a show. Nor do I intend to let citizens in Southwest Washington be disenfranchised in their right to meet publicly with me.
These giant-sized town hall events beg the question: are residents being served by events where whoever shouts the loudest gets heard? People are sick of partisan bickering in politics, and I believe such events actually discourage many residents from participating. So I’m trying a new method.
More recently I have been holding public meetings for local citizens in local coffee shops, diners and community centers. Here’s how they work: first, I record a message with the details of the meeting. My office delivers the message using phone and data companies that provide similar services to dozens of other Democrat and Republican officials. If you have voted once in the last four years or are a newly registered voter, own a phone, and live within a few miles of the event, you are on my list to receive event alerts. Since these services are funded by taxpayer dollars, communicating to only one party is not allowed. Therefore I cannot “stack” these meetings to invite those who only hold my point of view. And I want it that way; I am accountable to all voters, and I want to hear from everyone I represent. Republicans, Democrats and independents are invited and welcomed to participate.
At these events, everyone who wants to ask a question face-to-face with their U.S. representative gets the chance. Those who stand up to disagree get as much time as they want. They wait to speak, and don’t feel the need to shout. At one coffee in Clark County, I was made aware of the complex issues surrounding a proposed cell phone tower that my staff is now closely following. In Thurston County, a woman shared her detailed idea to provide improved mental health care for veterans. Her idea was innovative, intelligent and stemmed from her own difficult personal experiences. This kind of productive dialogue simply wouldn’t have occurred at a raucous town hall dominated by yelling.
People of all political stripes have shared overwhelmingly positive feedback after attending community coffees. We’ve held them in large cities like Vancouver and in smaller communities like Tenino, and participant numbers have ranged from 25 to 150 citizens. My goal is to host a coffee meeting for every community in this congressional district.
I’ll continue to give residents of this region as many opportunities as possible to tell me what’s important to them. This will include more telephone town halls, mobile office hours, jobs fairs, job creator roundtables, listening sessions, and other ways to connect.