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INDIANAPOLIS — When I headed out of my house early last Tuesday to cover a so-called town hall meeting about small business issues, I had little, if any, hope that I was on my way to something interesting.
At best, I wanted to glean enough information to put together a story.
Call me cynical but I’ve been to dozens, probably more than a hundred, such meetings over my two decades covering government and politics. Most take one of two forms:
Elected officials spend the majority of the meeting talking about the issues on their minds under the guise of hearing what constituents have to say, only to leave those folks just a few minutes to express their ideas or frustrations.
The meeting features a long line of audience members who are given two minutes to say the bare minimum about their concerns and then sit down with little or no dialogue with the officials who came to listen.
There are exceptions of course. Some meetings are a combination of the two forms. Sometimes elected officials ask questions. Occasionally, it seems that the officials or the constituents leave the event better informed, particularly if the meeting is local.
But too often, these types of events are either used by officials for politicking or meant to simply reinforce what those in attendance already believe.
That was certainly the case last Monday when the conservative Heritage Action for America brought its anti-Obamacare campaign to Indianapolis and hosted hundreds of supporters at a forum at a downtown hotel.
At that evening event, the enthusiastic crowd already was on board with the Heritage group’s message that the U.S. House should refuse to fund Obamacare and therefore stop its implementation.
Most of the event consisted of Heritage Action Chief Executive Mike Needham and former Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, now the president of the sister Heritage Foundation, talking passionately about the problems with the federal health care law.
The speakers took a few questions that had been submitted in written form by the audience before being passed to the presenters. And then Rafael Cruz, the father of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, finished with a stirring speech about freedom that brought the crowd to its feet.
It was a fairly impressive event. But while the Heritage folks labeled it a “town hall” meeting, it didn’t feature the free and vigorous exchange of ideas that I’ve always thought the name implied.
Instead, I found that the next morning at the town hall sponsored by the General Assembly’s Small Business Caucus.
This event, held in a conference room at Quality Environmental Professionals Inc., a firm in Indianapolis that bids on state work, didn’t have music or microphones or a standing-room-only crowd.
But the dozen or so small business leaders in attendance and the handful of lawmakers who led the event had real conversation. The elected officials opened the floor up almost immediately to comments and questions, and the diverse group of company leaders were ready.
They had concerns about the unemployment insurance system, state tax policy, contracting rules and entitlement programs. They came with examples of problems they’d encountered and suggestions about how to solve them.
And the lawmakers, a bipartisan group of state senators and representatives, came ready to listen. They took notes. They asked questions. They urged some of the business leaders to stay after the meeting so they could get more information.
Sen. Jean Breaux, D-Indianapolis, said she didn’t know what to expect when she showed up for Tuesday’s meeting but then found she was inspired by the stories she heard. Breaux said she was pleasantly surprised by the meeting’s tone and its value for creating public policy.
I was pleasantly surprised, too, and encouraged that a town hall meeting could not only be so interesting but seemingly productive as well. Here’s hoping the Small Business Caucus has set a new standard.
Lesley Weidenbener is managing editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.
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