Random thoughts on a variety of subjects
Conceptually, the “town meeting” sounds like an ideal format, reminiscent of the way an earlier (perhaps somewhat mythical) America allowed its citizenry to participate in community town hall discussions. However, in practice, for such a forum to be practical requires some calculated rigidity and an imposed discipline (or it becomes the chaotic mayhem we have recently seen demonstrated in the health care debates).
But, there is in place a functioning open public forum example (it actually works) which could be used as a model. It is the, every Wednesday, Dallas, Texas city council meeting, where any ordinary citizen is allowed, after the normal open-to-the-public council session is complete, to come up to an open podium (also broadcast live on radio and internet) and address the council, asking questions, presenting arguments or simply making statements not already on any agenda. Over the years, rules and procedures have been evolved which make the forum functional (and even heated), but without getting out of hand. There are reasonable time limits and rules regarding appropriate courtesy, although people are not prohibited from expressing anger or demonstrating pointed speech. Extremely controversial issues currently being debated by the council and coming up soon for a vote sometimes provoke some vehement arguments and those often bring in large groups representing the multiple viewpoints. When that happens, a certain limited number of representatives for each position is allowed (actually far more than are really needed… it gets boring). But, the council patiently stays and hears every last one. Any of the elected council members can comment or counter or say nothing (and they can call on staff members to provide needed further information). Any disruptive or truly unruly or vulgar behavior can (but rarely does) result in removal.
Somehow this all works (it’s hard to believe this goes on in a city the size of Dallas, but it does) and there is a controlled freedom about it. For a major metropolis to have maintained this strange public venue for any citizen to stand up before the city council and express their point of view or lodge a complaint or describe a problem (even about very petty and mundane subjects) is a testimony in how to make government work, but by following standards which permit open expression while maintaining dignity and decorum. In many ways, the rules and procedure are much like the way our Washington members of congress debate among themselves (they too have limitations and restrictions which dictate order).
If the town hall mechanism is not going to just be a vehicle for goon squads to disrupt what should be a wonderful exercise in freedom of expression and public debate, then everyone would be well served to take a look at the Dallas model which has been in effect now, like clockwork, every Wednesday for several decades. Like I said, “It works.”