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FOMO at the Congressional Town Hall
Town halls in the United States date back to the Colonial era, and for the past 300 or so years have served as a critical platform for government officials and politicians to discuss important policy issues and let residents know what their government is doing.
The tradition carried on in Long Beach Tuesday night as our congressman, Rep. Robert Garcia, hosted a town hall in Downtown.
Not everyone, however, was let in.
To get into the event you had to RSVP, something that not all members of Congress use, but the practice is somewhat common. I’ve never received an invitation to attend one of these meetings despite being a registered voter who lives in the district, and a media notice came in about 30 hours before the event happened.
But a person who did respond to the invite was Nicole Lopez, one of Garcia’s opponents in the 2022 congressional election.
Lopez, an outspoken critic of Garcia’s, showed up and was denied access.
She posted a video to her social media channels this week to document what she said was a clear denial of her rights as a constituent because of who she is: One of Garcia’s likely opponents in 2024.
She said she was initially granted access after she checked in with the staff at the entrance of the event but was turned around at the top of the stairs and told to go back down. They re-checked her identification and said she was not on the list.
When she showed the confirmation text she said she received, she was told it was fake. Her legal first name is Jazmin; it’s even on the Secretary of State’s website. The text she had was also from the same phone number others received confirmations from.
“I can barely work on Canva so I wouldn’t be able to photoshop it,” Lopez told me in an interview.
She posted multiple videos after being asked to leave because “she wasn’t on the list” including the second interaction with the staff who were checking people in. A staffer is seen saying he “didn’t recall” telling her she could go in and repeatedly said the event was at capacity.
“If anyone’s name was not on the list they were not allowed entry for both security and venue capacity reasons,” a spokesperson for Garcia’s office said. “We look forward to hosting more events in the future.”
The spokesperson did not address Lopez’s text and email confirmations to attend the event.
While I was at city hall that night, my colleague, Alicia Robinson, was in the front row of Garcia’s town hall. Photos she took and others Lopez posted from friends inside the event show that there were several open seats.
The issue here isn’t about chairs; it’s about access to your representative in Congress.
If people in the district aren’t receiving invites for town halls, that’s a problem. If people are RSVP-ing and being turned away, that’s also a problem.
Members of Congress represent everyone in their district, even the ones that didn’t vote for them. It’s part of the gig.
People who’ve attended previous Garcia town halls have joked to me about being a “VIP” and one of the “friendly faces” that were chosen to be in attendance. Having covered Garcia for as long as I have, those jokes track with how he’s conducted business in the past.
We wrote about this in 2021 when in private meetings Garcia urged nonprofit leaders to pack public comment for the controversial migrant shelter at the Convention Center.
Only one dissenter was allowed on the list while political allies and even his brother, who works for a state legislator, lauded his proposal to house migrant children in Long Beach.
Lopez had a question she hoped to ask. Why hasn’t Garcia spoken out about the ongoing strike at Hotel Maya, a favorite location for Garcia’s political events over the years? She never got the opportunity.
“I think it’s dangerous and I think it’s unfair,” she said. “It doesn’t allow other constituents, other voters to really hear different perspectives. I wasn’t there to debate him.”
There are plenty of best practice guides out there on how to conduct a successful town hall. This one from the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at the University of Southern Illinois recommends expanding the audience to include partisans and independents, having an independent moderator, streaming or recording the event if possible and ensuring the meeting is open to the public.
I’m guessing this includes those members of the public who may be running against the incumbent in the upcoming election.
Public forums can be valuable tools for democracy and can make elected officials better at their jobs, however, that requires all viewpoints to be let into the room to ensure they have the ability to hear the full scope of concerns that exist in their districts.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW THIS WEEK:
As usual on the fourth Tuesday, the City Council is dark next week. However they will be back in early September, either the 5th or 12th, to approve the city budget. That means you (mostly me) might have some time to get outside and enjoy the weather, which doesn’t include 90% or more humidity now that the tropical storm has passed. This week our team published a photo gallery of all the new murals in the city that have sprung up in recent weeks thanks to the annual Long Beach Walls event. The lack of public meetings this week could give you an opportunity to go walk around the city and maybe grab brunch at The Wild Chive or a quick coffee at Good Time and check them out in person.
PAY ATTENTION TO THIS NEXT WEEK:
If you read my story from last weekend about the city’s hiring woes, you wouldn’t have been alarmed to hear how tenuous some city services are. Libraries can be just one sick call away from having to close an entire branch for the day because of staff shortages. More critical services like fire and police have been forced to use mandatory overtime to ensure they have enough employees on a given day. The issue is multi-pronged, but low pay and a hiring process that can take months have factored into a citywide vacancy rate of 22%. The city is looking at ways to close this gap, and whatever gets approved in the budget next month could dictate how flexible the city can be with hiring in 2024.