How to Rock a Town Hall
And other ways to get your voice heard by your legislators
Nikki Roemmer, regional director of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, has noticed a dramatic change in local citizen engagement since the presidential election. "People are really fired up at what's going on at the federal level," she says. "I've never seen so many people looking to get involved and get their voices heard."
If you're among those who want to provide your opinion on specific issues to local, state or federal public officials, you have a number of options, depending on how much time you have and how much of an impact you want to make.
Signing petitions is perhaps the least time-consuming option. Although the impact is generally minimal, Sara Hottman, state communications director for Sen. Jeff Merkley, noted that when the senator received a petition in January signed by 1.4 million citizens, it gave him the impetus he needed to call a press conference that garnered statewide media coverage.
Phone calls, emails and snail mail
According to Hottman, Sen. Merkley's field office in Bend received about 10 phone calls per day before the election. "Now," she says, "it's easily three times that per hour." She added that the Portland office recently received 37,000 physical mailings in a single week.
When lawmakers received fewer phone calls each day, the calls might have stood out more than emails and snail mail. But now, Andrew Malcolm, communications director for Rep. Greg Walden, says, "All those methods work; they all get tallied the same way." Hottman agrees, noting, "It might be most satisfying to call and talk to someone, but the reality is that, whether emailed or called or mailed in, it's all counted the same way."
Whichever method you use, the most important information to provide is your name, where you live (so they know you're a constituent), the issue you're concerned about and your opinion on that issue.
Individuals and groups can drop in at public officials' offices, although Hottman suggests making an appointment, especially if your goal is to speak with a high-level staff member. Before visiting, Roemmer says, "You definitely want to prepare your message." She encourages people to research all sides of issues they care about and attend educational events such as OLCV's monthly Pints & Politics discussion.
During the meetings, Roemmer advises, "Be polite, be direct, and have a clear message and clear 'ask.' Also make sure you thank the legislator for their time, and follow up with a thank-you note."
Town halls offer a unique opportunity to speak directly to state-level officials and hear from fellow citizens. Sen. Ron Wyden and Sen. Merkley typically conduct at least one town hall in every county of the state each year. In 2016, Malcolm noted that Rep. Walden held 27 in-person town halls in the 20 counties he represents, and he said Walden plans to hold at least one in Deschutes County sometime this year, with Wyden having three planned in Central Oregon this month.
Even if you don't want to ask a question at a town hall, or aren't called upon, Hottman says you can make your views evident through positive, symbolic means. "It has an effect when people show up in coordinating outfits, or have signs saying they're all part of the same group. It sends a message without having to ask a question." In addition, she suggests writing down your question and contact information, and handing the information to a staff member if you aren't called upon.
Whatever methods people use to express their views, Roemmer says she's simply excited to see increasing local interest and involvement in politics. "Now, the important thing is to keep it up," she says. "Let's stay consistently engaged, and let's be proud and strong with our voice."
Senator Ron Wyden's upcoming town halls:
Monday, Feb. 20:
· DESCHUTES COUNTY: 5:30 pm, Sisters High School auditorium, 1700 McKinney Butte Rd., Sisters
Tuesday, Feb. 21:
CROOK COUNTY: 12:30 pm, Crook County High School auditorium, 1100 SE Lynn Blvd, Prineville
Wednesday, Feb. 22
JEFFERSON COUNTY: 10 am, Madras Performing Arts Center, 412 SE Buff St., Madras