You Can’t Spell “Town Hall” Without “Ow”

When public meetings start going sideways, it’s best to lead the charge.

There are few forms of participatory democracy as hallowed as town halls, when communities come together to debate issues, build consensus and vote on the proceedings. They’ve been a feature of North American democracy and local governance since the 1600s, and over time evolved into the go-to forum for community participation on any topic.

However, the storied town hall isn’t as engrained in democracy as you might think. For one, they only took place in isolated towns for their first few hundred years of existence, and weren’t adopted broadly by politicians until the 1970s. What’s more, since then most politicians have grown to loathe them.

Republican congressman Peter Roskam of Illinois is a case in point. After several combative town hall meetings, he has opted for telephone town halls and more intimate meetings at smaller venues. The reason: “Large, unstructured events tend to devolve into shouting matches,” his office said. “Both sides compete with each other over who can scream the loudest, while the people who are interested in an actual, productive dialogue are denied the opportunity to hear and be heard.”

In fact, large town halls have become such a breeding ground for opposition, a cottage industry has grown around it. One group in the United States monitors how many town halls politicians hold. It specializes in shaming laggards into hosting them, where its members promptly ambush them. Politicians are taking note and ditching the town hall in favour of more representative, more constructive forms of dialogue.

The same can’t be said of commercial real estate developers, who remain tied to their own, equally ruinous version of the town hall:  the public meeting. For decades, this has been the go-to approach for convincing the host community about the benefits of a project, whether it be a condo tower or a glass factory. Like so many things, public meetings work very well in principle. They bring together a large swath of the community in one shot. They deliver a captive audience receptive to explanation and elaboration. Questions on everyone’s mind come up, and they’re answered. Fears are put to rest and support is built.

In practice, the outcome is a lot messier. Instead of providing a venue for thoughtful explanation and discussion, large public meetings become a stage for fear-mongering and unfounded criticisms. Instead of answering questions and calming fears, they raise boogeymen and sow confusion. Instead of building public support, the public meeting sets in motion a negative feedback loop that erodes it from the centre outward.

The first and most obvious casualty is the developer. Hostile crowds will have all but the most experienced presenter immediately on the defensive. No matter how well prepared, questions that come out of left field will make them appear uncertain and confused. Under pressure, many will make up answers that will come back to haunt them. And opponents will use the chance to put them on the spot and agree to promises they would never agree to outside a room of angry residents.

Project supporters and those on the fence are the next to fall. Opponents will make sure they learn many things that are unfavourable about the project, true or not. They will be made to feel their views are uninformed and in the minority. At the very least, they will feel intimidated enough to keep their support to themselves. And what’s a city planner to think about a room full of hostile residents? They are hardwired to assess whether projects fit in to the fabric of the community. The raw emotion of a town hall is going to set off alarm bells and cause them to carefully reconsider the project.

Finally, there’s the politicians, who developers most need for support. As a rule of thumb, the only politicians at public meetings side with opponents. The others know they can read the gory details in the media and then make up their minds. Yes, it’s true, no one will understand better than a politician that public meetings almost always go sideways. But don’t expect their sympathy or their vote. They also understand better than most that when things start going sideways, it’s best to lead the charge.


campaigns, Kevin Powers
Kevin Powers is Managing Principal of Project Advocacy, a Toronto-based public affairs firm that helps project developers facing local opposition
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