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'These kinds of gatherings give people a feeling of real American participation.' : Town Meetings--the Face of Democracy

May 21, 1987|ALAN C. MILLER | Times Staff Writer

Kevin Wilby, a teacher from La Crescenta, stood to criticize a recent series of President Reagan's actions, including the invasion of Grenada and the Iranian arms sales.

"Where do you stand on impeachment and bringing that up on the floor?" Wilby asked Rep. Carlos Moorhead, the Glendale Republican who represents him in Washington.

"I stand with the rest of the members of Congress," Moorhead replied. "There's no grounds for that."

When Wilby sought to ask a follow-up question, many of the about 125 people in the audience at the Glendale Public Library heckled him.

"The Grenadians are glad we went down there, jerko!" one man yelled.

"Who are you speaking for? The Soviets?" said another. "Sit down," others demanded.

"Let me change my question," Wilby said, peering at Moorhead. "Do you think I should be shouted down when I'm trying to ask my representative a question?"

Moorhead then offered a more detailed answer to Wilby's question about Reagan's actions.

Moorhead, in fact, was there to respond--to questions about events in Washington, concerns at home or any other topic that arose. He was also there to listen to what his constituents had to tell him. And, not incidentally, he hoped to win respect, if not votes, from those who decide every two years if he keeps his job.

The eight-term lawmaker was conducting a town meeting, a ritual that, in one form or another, has been a staple of grass-roots American democracy since the colonists first gathered in New England. It is a freewheeling forum in which constituents can query their representatives, give them a piece of their mind or buttonhole them to help solve personal problems with government.

"If you do them often enough, you cannot help but be in touch with your constituents, their concerns and their problems and their anxieties and their feelings," said Rep. Anthony Beilenson, a Los Angeles Democrat who also holds regular town meetings. "That's the crux of your job."

Rare Involvement Opportunity

In this media-dominated age, when 30-second television spots and carefully crafted mailings typify political communication, such face-to-face contact with a member of Congress offers taxpayers a rare sense of involvement.

"People feel remote from their representatives, who are frequently labeled 'misrepresentatives,' " said William L. Stewart of Canoga Park, who has attended several Beilenson forums. "These kinds of gatherings give people a feeling of real American participation."

Although many representatives agree that the forums reap political benefits as well as keeping them up with what is on their constituents' minds, not all Congress members hold them. They are not required to do so.

"Usually you end up with a group of people you went to high school with, people you would end up seeing at many other" community events, said Rep. Howard L. Berman, a Panorama City Democrat who hasn't held a town meeting since 1983. "We just weren't getting that many people."

He said as few as 10 to 15 people would show up after he'd sent 10,000 to 15,000 invitations. Other congressmen report that they generally draw 100 to 300 residents to their periodic forums. About 75 people attended Beilenson's recent Canoga Park session.

Unimpressive Turnouts

Several of those at recent town meetings sponsored by Beilenson and Moorhead expressed disappointment that the auditoriums were half empty.

"I'm just frustrated because people won't come," said Frances Parmentier of Glendale, a regular at Moorhead's forums. "I ask friends and they just don't want to come. They say they're not interested enough. It's apathy. This is the thing they should be most interested in."

The risk of holding the meetings, other representatives say, lies not in how many respond but in the unpredictability of who responds. Groups vehemently opposed to a lawmakers' views, political extremists or individuals with emotional problems can pose thorny challenges.

"A lot of my friends wouldn't do it on a bet," Moorhead said. "They think the potential controversy you can get with all the different concepts and ideas is not worth it."

Animated Exchange of Views

But this free play of ideas can also lead to lively exchanges, such as the one that occurred at Moorhead's recent session.

Wilby, a teacher whose comments brought jeers, later said of those who had tried to silence him: "I think they sometimes overlook the freedoms that brought them to this town meeting."

Payoffs at the Polls

Whatever fireworks they may ignite, for most vote-conscious officeholders, these sessions pay generous dividends.

"There's great political value for members in that town meetings send out the signal that you're there, you're getting feedback, you're interested in what your constituents think--all the kinds of things we expect of a representative," said Norman J. Ornstein, a scholar on Congress at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington research organization.

"And it's an opportunity to tell people what you're doing in Washington."

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