One of the rights enshrined in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution is the right of citizens to petition their government — and its leaders, we might add — for “a redress of grievances.” That’s a fundamental right of a citizen we hold sacred today.
So why do we get the feeling our local members of the House of Representatives — Rep. Tom Garrett of the Fifth District and Rep. Bob Goodlatte of the Sixth — want to do everything they can to avoid meeting with their constituents and giving them the chance to “petition their Government for a redress of grievances”?
Previously, we chided both congressmen for their failure to meet face to face with their constituents during the District Work Week. Goodlatte held a “town hall” via conference call, while Garrett staged two Facebook Live events he labeled town halls. And during their District Work Week, both congressmen were physically as far from Central Virginia as they could be: Goodlatte on a trip to India and Garrett in Germany.
But at the end of the week, though, Garrett announced two in-person town halls for his Fifth District constituents, one in Charlottesville on March 13 and one in Moneta on May 9. Goodlatte remains wedded to his “conference call” town halls.
While no additional information has been released about the Moneta town hall, it’s the Charlottesville town hall that’s thrust Garrett into the spotlight.
“Scheduling conflicts” at the unnamed site of the March 13 event resulted in changing the date to March 31 at 6:30 p.m. at the Batten School of Leadership on the Grounds of the University of Virginia. Tickets would be required, with the Batten School and the Charlottesville Democratic and Republican parties to get 45 each to distribute. After strenuous objections were raised, the distribution was changed to a strict lottery system.
Rep. Garrett’s staff said their aim wasn’t to stifle dissent but rather to have a setting free of the “drama” that has characterized the town halls of other members of Congress this year. There would be no signs, no clapping, no shouting or booing and no outbursts. And Batten School staff would “moderate” the event.
Is democracy loud and messy sometimes, though? You bet it is. Citizens just want to be heard … they want to make their feelings known to their elected officials. And those elected officials should give them that chance in a free and open setting.
The average citizen can get frustrated when he seeks to communicate with his elected representatives. A phone call to the office either goes to voicemail or is handled by a staffer who takes down the gist of the message and says it will be relayed to the congressman. A letter — handwritten and mailed or sent by email — results in a boilerplate, form-letter response that rarely addresses the constituent’s specific concerns. It can be frustrating.
A town hall — live, face-to-face and in-person — is the only opportunity many constituents have to meet their representative, and if they feel as though even that is being circumscribed and constrained, you can’t blame them for being upset.
Eight years ago, then-Rep. Tom Perriello held 11 town halls in the Fifth District as the issue of health care reform raged across the country. People were angry … they were upset … they wanted to be heard and acknowledged. Very few attendees likely had voted for Perriello in 2008, but he saw it as his duty to give everyone the chance to question him and register their opinion.
Reps. Garrett and Goodlatte owe their constituents — both those who voted for them and those who didn’t — that same respect and opportunity. Meet the residents of your districts, your bosses, face to face, answer their questions and let them voice their opinions. Treat them with respect, and they’ll treat you with respect. We’d remind you that democracy is messy and sometimes boisterous, but that’s what you signed up for when you ran for office.