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Clark: Not Town Meeting

08/12/09 12:55PM By Susan Clark
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(HOST) Members of Congress have been getting earfuls of loud opinions from their constituents as they hold "town hall meetings" on health care. But commentator Susan Clark takes issue with people who are co-opting that phrase.

(CLARK) We've been hearing a lot in the media in recent days about the so-called "Town hall meetings" on health care.

Depending on whom you believe: either enraged masses of citizens are storming town halls to protest the Obama health care plan; or, the conservative spin machine has whipped up a series of orchestrated publicity stunts at the local level (rather than grassroots, skeptics call it "Astroturf".

Whatever you want to call these events - "public discussions" or "staged riots" - one thing is for sure: they aren't "town meetings."

The use (or abuse) of the term "town meeting" grates on the ears of anyone who has participated in real local democracy. On issues of finance and governance in Vermont, the town meeting is the legislative body of the town. A real town meeting is a form of government - not just a place to sound off.  Here, citizens are deliberating on real issues, making amendments, taking binding votes, and otherwise governing themselves.

When politicians and the media latch onto the term "town hall meeting" they're hoping to hitch their wagon to the star of democracy - civic virtue - the public good. The mention of "town meeting" inspires poetry! Passion! And, apparently, the sincerest form of flattery - an endless string of cheap knock-offs.

Remember the presidential candidates' "town hall debates"? While they have almost no resemblance to a real town meeting, "town hall debates" sound appealing because they promise to be more informal (candidates will sit on stools - they might even roll up their sleeves!). They might be more interactive (questions are posed by actual citizens!); and maybemore intimate (candidates might tell a personal story or two).

In short, the term "town meeting" connotes something that is more "real" than politics-as-usual.

But - unlike the "town hall" events - at a real town meeting, citizens have real power. These recent public outbursts are about as close to a real town meeting as imitation maple syrup is to Grade A Dark Amber.

To govern effectively, citizens - as well as our best leaders - are looking for viable two-way formats where all voices and ideas can be heard, and where deliberation and amendment can occur. This is the moment for intelligent citizen engagement - not for shouting ourselves hoarse.

The tragedy of the new term "town hall meeting" and its connection with these incendiary public outbursts is that it reinforces the notion that citizens are not capable of self-governance.   

If only copyright infringement laws could be invoked by local democracies, we who conduct real town meetings would have a dandy lawsuit on our hands.

These so called "town hall meetings" don't meet America's standards for democracy.

They're giving public participation - not to mention Town Meeting - a bad name.
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