For ages, members of Congress spent their annual August recess hosting a parade of town hall meetings where voters could personally gripe, praise them or seek their help in a ritual of American democracy.
That is now disappearing in Utah, with only Reps. Jason Chaffetz and Rob Bishop, R-Utah, planning any such meetings this year. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, and Sens. Bob Bennett and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, have junked them in favor of more high-tech telephone conferences that they say reach more people.
But some say it may be a sign of cowardice by officeholders unwilling to face personally people upset with them, while instead using a telephone forum where disgruntled people can be easily cut off or avoided, and any unpleasantness occurs beyond the view of news cameras.
That comes as groups on both sides of the health-care reform debate have protested at town hall meetings elsewhere nationally, resulting in raucous affairs.
Chaffetz criticizes others for halting the traditional town meetings.
"I think you need to be able to stand the heat in the kitchen. … I stand up to the microphone and answer the hard questions. I think that's what it's all about," he said.
Chaffetz adds that he also likes and uses telephone conference calls with voters. "But when you do that, you pick who you call, where a town hall meeting allows anyone to show. I like that type of forum. I thrive in the spontaneity of a town hall meeting."
Scott Parker, chief of staff to Bishop, said Bishop continues traditional town hall meetings because "they are a great avenue to give an update on activities in Washington and to hear input and thoughts from constituents. They … play an important role when it comes to representing the views of your district."
Matheson stopped doing traditional town hall meetings about two years ago, long before current controversy about whether congressmen who dump them might be trying to avoid controversy before news cameras with people who dislike their stand on health care.
He said advertising traditional town hall meetings by sending post cards to all constituents was expensive, "and then we were getting fewer than 50 people showing up at events."
He added, "We found a much more effective way to get people connected was through the telephone town hall. … We've had over 45,000 people on the phone just this year in telephone town halls. It's allowed me to have a much more inclusive, comprehensive dialogue with constituents."
Matheson said he will often have different conference calls for different geographical areas. People who have registered with his office are invited by e-mail to participate. He says he takes questions, and everyone can leave a voice mail with more questions. He says his office responds to all of them.
Matheson says telephone forums still allow the upset, passionate and opinionated to voice concerns, sometimes loudly.
"I think for the most part people are respectful and we've had good dialogue. It doesn't mean we haven't had different points of view expressed," he said.
Matheson said he held five telephone town hall meetings in June and July, and they will resume in September. He said he's found that participation drops off in August when more people are on vacation or preparing for school.
Heather Barney, a spokeswoman for Hatch, said a lack of town hall meetings by the senator has not stopped groups that held protests at them elsewhere nationally from still sending people to his office for perhaps less public protests.
Barney said one Democratic group "has sent e-mails to its lists telling people that they can set up a meeting in Sen. Hatch's office to talk about health-care reform. … The problem has been that we have no idea when people think they have an appointment set.
"They either show up or call in and say they have an appointment. We have had our health-care staff member take the time to meet with each of them or in groups, and they have by and large been very respectful, and their opinions have been noted," she said.
Matheson, Hatch and Bennett say that while they may not have town hall meetings, they still have plenty of speeches, meetings with local officials, topic forums and campaign events where they meet with the public.
Tara Hendershott, spokeswoman for Bennett, said the senator also "plans to visit hospitals throughout the state and meet with health-care practitioners, administrators and state and local officials, among others to discuss how the Democrats' health-care proposals would affect Utah and why he opposes a government-run plan."
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