Saturday, August 08, 2009

How to Make Health Care Town Halls a Success

How to Solve the Mob Tactics at Health Care (or other) Town Hall Meetings

Thursday night, I had hoped to attend a town hall style meeting with US Congress Member Kathy Castor and State Representative Betty Reed. The plan is that I would hear these two ladies and duly elected representatives talk about how the health care bill was shaping up, their views, and take questions. I expected that there would be some people who agreed with the idea that there needs to be insurance reform, and some that wouldn’t. Each sides would put forward their questions, and everybody would learn something even if we didn’t all agree.

Yeah. What was I thinking. In the tradition of the Constitutional debates, where Benjamen Franklin stood up shouting “SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP!” at Hamilton, who screeched back “I’M NOT HERE TO LISTEN TO WHAT YOU HAVE TO SAY!”, a group of what I assume to be Teabaggers showed up to do nothing but, for almost 90 straight minutes, scream, shout, let it all out and generally make sure that nobody could hear anything at all. Because after all, having a civilized debate like adults is too much to ask for.

OK, the last was sarcasm. It was an ugly experience that every single one of the Shouters should be embarrassed about. It’s behavior that I would not expect out of my youngest child who is five years old and know that you at least take turns.

The problem is, the Shouters are dominating the Health Care Town Halls, sponsored by corporate interests who have created “Astroturf” grass roots organizations that have been filling the Shouters with outright lies. Such as “The Obama Health Plan will euthanize old people.” Or “The Obama Health Plan will raid your checking and savings accounts to pay for it.” Even as recently as a few days ago, quitter Sarah Palin came out saying that the Obama Health Plan would set up a Death Panel that would have killed her Down Syndrome child.

With these kinds of lies filling them, the Shouters are told to show up, disrupt meetings, and prevent anything from being said. As I saw with Congressperson Castor, every time she tried to explain what was in the bill or even what her ideas were, the Shouters screamed like someone was pulling on their Teabags too hard.
It was the most unpleasant 90 minutes of my life. And since that night, I kept thinking about how to prevent such things in the future. How to allow for the free flow of ideas, without letting them get hijacked by people who have no interest in hearing any other view but their own being screeched at their duly elected representatives?

Do insurance reform supporters just get louder? Not useful, since that simply perpetuates the problem of noise silencing proper discussion. Bringing more signs? Holding up protest artifacts? All of this just generates noise.
The goal should be Meeting, Not Mobs.
Here are my thoughts on how to have the kind of town hall meetings we want to spread information, while still allowing those of a dissenting view a chance to air their questions. These ideas will take some work. But, based on what I saw Thursday night, I believe they stand the best chance of working.

The Steps:

  1. Control the Flow
  2. Sign the Contract
  3. Register and Document
  4. Any Disruptions Will Not Be Tolerated

Control the Flow


5 Police Officers from the local community (if possible, others in plainsclothes for the ground floor).

1 volunteer per every 20 seats.

At least 5 police officers from the local community – two at the doors leading inside, three inside. This can be reduced depending on the size of the town hall to be had, but seeing as 200 seat meeting drew some 1600 people according to some reports, this is probably a good number.

The volunteers are to lead people to their seats. From the beginning, there should be this sense of control via the health care town hall organizers. This is not in a mean or overly authoritarian way. Volunteers should be polite and helpful, but their task is to direct the flow of people coming into the meeting area, and take them to their seat. People will not be allowed to simply sit where they want.

Wait, you say. How do we know people will follow the rules? Hold on. That’s coming.

Sign the Contract


1 Printed Contract Form for each person we believe will show up

As each person enters, they must put show ID and sign a Town Hall Contract. Each Contract Form says something akin to this:

I, _______________________________ , do agree to follow the rules for this town hall meeting. I seek to learn what my democratically elected representative and their staff have to say. I will not be disruptive during the meeting. If I have questions, I will hold them until the end of the meeting, and then I will wait until I have been called upon to ask them in a respectful manner.
If I violate these rules, I understand at the discretion of the Town Hall staff and volunteers I will be asked to leave.

Signed: _______________________

Date: _________________________

Naturally, if someone has better language, I am certainly open to it. While this document may or may not be considered a legal contract, the point is that it binds them at their word at least. This basically tells them “If you’re here to cause trouble, you will be kicked out.” And, since the words “…discretion of the Town Hall staff and volunteers” basically means they aren’t allowed to say “What? What gives you the right to do so?”

This is not a "loyalty oath" or other such nonsense. It does not dictate a view they must subscribe to. It simply lets them know what the rules are, and if they can not follow those rules, they may leave.

This step also has another point. It slows things down. It sets a tone – politeness. Civility. It also lets us process each person one at a time, not as a mob, but as individuals.

If they do not want to sign this contract, they will be asked to leave. Period. There are no second chances. The first time they say “I don’t want to sign this,” or refuse to comply with instructions, they must *immediately* be escorted from the premises, preferably by one of the law enforcement officers.

This will be hard for some people, because we want to be nice. We are – we are giving them every opportunity to follow the rules in order to allow everyone a chance to participate. If they wish a Mob instead of a Meeting, they were perfectly welcome under their 1st Amendment Rights to hold that elsewhere, such as inside their house with their friends. Then they can Mob to their hearts content.

Register and Document


1 camera that can be hooked into a computer (such as a web camera)
1 laptop computer to take the pictures
1 printer to print out names and pictures later.
Label paper for name tags for as many people as you think will show up

One thing I observed about the Shouters is they did not want to put their name down onto any pieces of paper if possible. This step is again part of that control and tempo. Once they have signed the contract, their picture will be taken onto the computer and a nametag printed for them. Their picture will be taken, and they will have a name tag made for them.The picture is so when the speaker calls on them, they will have a printed list of names and pictures so they can call them by name so there is no confusion.

It also has the added advantage of freaking the snot out of anyone who wanted to use the anonymity of a Mob to hide themselves. I know – OMG taking pictures so scary! It’s necessary. If people intend on acting reasonably, then they have nothing to fear. If they can not follow the rules and have their picture taken, again, they will be escorted out immediately. No questions, no second chances. Have a nice day.

Any Disruptions Will Not Be Tolerated

This is the most important step. No disruptions. We should at the beginning have a statement read by the facilitator that lets people know people will want to clap, or applaud, or any other expression within reason. However, disruptions, screams, and shouts will not. The first time someone has a problem with this, both a volunteer and a law enforcement officer will be called to escort that person from the room.
This is crucial. By now, with the controls in place, most people should get the message. The first sign of trouble, however, must be met swiftly, but politely. The rude Mob person must be sent outside. They can scream and shout out there (without breaking any “disturb the peace” laws, of course) – but this is a Meeting, not a Mob.

I recognize that these efforts will take some prior planning. These are not draconian, do not require anything other than decency and respect. It does not require anger meet with anger or noise with noise. But they establish proper controls, and allow everyone to participate in the Meeting and, whether they agree or not, be able to gain something from the discussions.


Anonymous said...

John, I don't think the bit about giving a list of names to anyone is a good idea.
The simple fact of having to sign in,W/ID, wear a name tag, should be sufficient. Perhaps a voter's ID?
Other than that one quibble, it may work.
By the way, thanks for the report on the Tampa meeting. It was waay better than Faux News.

John Hummel said...


I get what you mean, but I think it's an important part. It's about removing the anonymity. It might be a bridge too far, and of all the steps, it's the one that could be removed. Either way, I still believe when they sign the contract (even without their picture being taken) they need to show an ID (otherwise they can just make up "Micky Mouse" and weasel out of it).

Anonymous said...


I don't think asking for their voting ID would be a good idea, they'd probably think you're going to exclude them based on party affiliation.

And John, great blog on what happened. I had a lot of friends helping with the event...I'm glad it didn't get any crazier than it did.


missionctrl said...

Your fascinating meeting report turned up in a random search in my new Twitter account(!) Friday, and I definitely enjoy(ed) and applaud your constructive efforts to improve public discourse.

Something I would definitely consider adding for improved meeting decorum is a prohibition on the display of "Free Speech" posters and banners inside the meeting room. Whether all forms of free speech must be allowed in a meeting sponsored by a government (or non-government) entity is something legal friends may wish to comment on.

Anonymous said...

I think your on a point, but theres a danger here of giving the republicans a talking point about big brother censorship or whatever.

The dems just need to hire a good crowd control consultant , have some bouncers and 5-10 cops on hand to deal with it. If people start misbehaving, they get escorted out, forcibly if needs be. People will quickly get the message that trying to bully democratic processes will not be looked kindly upon.