Who should be informed of the opportunity to meet with their elected officials? Who decides how that should happen? According to U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, she does.
Herrera Beutler told the approximately 24 people who attended her community “coffee” Monday that her office contacted “between 5,000 and 10,000 people,” inviting them to the meeting.
“The whole purpose is to hear from you,” she said.
On Friday The Chronicle in Centralia received a phone call from Herrera Beutler staffer and Communications Director Casey Bowman informing the newspaper of the meeting. Bowman asked that a meeting announcement not be placed in the paper. However, he did invite the paper to cover the event.
The Chronicle refused his request and published an announcement in Saturday’s paper.
The reason for not publishing an advance notice of the meeting was the fear that people from outside the immediate area could come and “just yell” at the congresswoman “whatever’s on their minds,” Bowman said Friday.
“When word gets in the paper, you get a certain set of people,” Bowman said.
In an email to The Chronicle Monday afternoon, Bowman elaborated.
“In our experience, when we put out a press release and announce such events well in advance, interest groups — often from outside the district — use the information to organize and follow the congresswoman from event to event to dominate the conversation, and local residents lose out,” Bowman wrote. “Our focus is on giving everyone in Southwest Washington a chance to say what’s on their mind to their representative in Congress. Recently, we’ve stuck to phone calls to invite people — but we do not screen who we invite within a community. Period.”
Herrera Beutler has held one open town hall-style meeting in the Twin Cities area, in May at Centralia College, where people in the audience from outside her district did criticize the freshman congresswoman. Since then she has been holding “coffees,” including one in Tenino, according to Bowman’s email.
Bowman wrote that 5,600 Chehalis voters were contacted by phone and invited to come to the congresswoman’s coffee on Monday.
“We call everyone with a phone within a certain ZIP code, as provided by the Secretary of State’s voter file,” Bowman wrote. “If you own a phone, live within the Chehalis ZIP code, and have voted even once in the last 4 years, you were on our call list.”
It is unclear if those phone numbers include cellphones.
Of the eight people The Chronicle spoke with at the meeting, all from Chehalis, all had received a recorded phone message inviting them to the meeting.
According to the Lewis County Auditor’s Office, there are 3,612 active registered voters in Chehalis and about 7,300 residents. Bowman wrote in a follow-up email that they “rely on vendors who provide phone and data services to dozens of Democrat and Republican members of Congress,” for contact information. That information is used to contact constituents in a specific geographic area.
At least one couple at the meeting said they had to take the time to call the congresswoman’s Washington, D.C. office to find out when she would hold a public meeting. According to Lorraine Orcutt, the people she spoke with in Herrera Beutler’s office didn’t know.
“They said they hadn’t scheduled one,” Orcutt said. “If I wanted to attend I would have to leave a phone number.”
Orcutt left her number. On Sunday she received a recorded message about Monday’s meeting. But Orcutt lives in Doty.
Although she received an invitation, Orcutt felt the notification process shouldn’t be so difficult for an elected official’s constituents.
“It’s not for them to make it hard to contact them,” Orcutt said.
Not everyone was critical of the notification process, however. Pat Spears of Chehalis also received a recorded call from the congresswoman. She expressed appreciation for the intimate nature of the meeting, saying that some people come to public meetings and monopolize and criticize.
“People like us can’t ask questions,” Spears said.
Asked after the meeting how she expected to get the word out to all her constituents without publishing a press release announcing a meeting, Herrera Beutler replied she had held 19 town hall meetings and community conversations and called over 20,000 people to participate.
Asked if she were trying to screen people, Herrera Beutler replied, “Nope.”
Former 3rd District Congressman Brian Baird said he was a big proponent of town hall meetings. In a telephone interview Friday, Baird said he felt it is the responsibility of an elected representative to make themselves available to their constituents and to hear their concerns, regardless of whether they agreed with the representative or not.
“I thought they were very important to hear what the public has to say,” Baird said of his own town hall experiences.
He claimed he held a town hall meeting in nearly every incorporated city in the 3rd District during his first two years in office.
“It was well over 300 town halls,” Baird said, recalling he and his staff celebrated with a cake when they reached their goal.
Baird’s town halls weren’t all fun and games, particularly after the emergence of the Tea Party, which began a confrontational campaign of disruption at the public meetings.
“There was a concerted effort by Tea Party members to disrupt town halls,” Baird recalled. “Then there was this rough period where people tried to shout people down for a YouTube moment.”
Baird had advice for people attending town halls or other meetings hosted by elected officials.
“Treat the rep with civility and courtesy,” Baird said. “To shout or intimidate is not acceptable.”