Relax in a recliner. Channel surf on the TV. Cook dinner for the kids. It is now possible to do each while also participating in a town hall meeting, and Congressman Hank Johnson is tapping into the technology to continue doing just that with his constituents.
For the third time since January 2009, Johnson held a town hall meeting via telephone, and according to his press aide, his audience numbered 10,550 households. That meeting was held on Jan. 27, less than two hours before President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech.
Andy Phelan, Johnson’s communications director, said telephone town hall meetings are popular among members of Congress and that Johnson is growing more comfortable with them. He’d like to hold two or three more in 2010, Phelan said.
Phelan explained that Johnson recorded two messages for the calls and through a service that pulls phone numbers of active voters, 50,000 households in the 4th Congressional District were automatically dialed on Jan. 27. The service’s software distinguishes when an answering machine or a person picks up and delivers the appropriate message. When the calls connected with a live person they were invited to participate in the town hall meeting, which lasted about an hour, and were immediately connected to the call. Johnson delivered a five-minute message about his desire to hear from constituents and that he would answer questions to the best of his ability. He also told them about two upcoming meetings for nonprofits and small business.
Phelan said that the telephone town hall meeting operates similarly to a radio talk show. Callers who indicate that they want to ask a question of the congressman were instructed to press a button on their phone and those calls were transferred to screeners from the congressman’s office. Questions were typed into a computer and sent to Phelan who passed information to Johnson, who was in Washington, about the caller and their question. Some 10 to 15 callers were chosen to ask their questions directly to Johnson, and 50 other callers recorded queries, which will be answered via email or phone, Phelan said.
During the first town hall meeting, 25,000 calls were made and 35,000 during the second in August 2009. Phelan said that going forward they would probably limit the calls to between 25,000 and 30,000 because of technical problems that arise with the higher numbers.
Before asking Johnson his opinion on a public option in the health care plan, a woman commented about the telephone town hall concept. “I really like this form of communication,” said the woman. A man who identified himself as a Conyers resident asked, “What are you all doing to help the middle class? We are suffering. We need some help?” A woman who identified herself as a 73-year-old Stone Mountain resident told Johnson that she was struggling to keep her house note paid and that foreclosure assistance programs wouldn’t help until she was in arrears. “What can you do to help the seniors,” she asked. Johnson said he was working to make things better for seniors and told the woman to call his office in Lithonia for additional help.
Callers were asked at the end of the town hall meeting to participate in a poll about their views on the job that Obama is doing. Phelan said that 278 participated and 80 percent indicated they felt he was doing a good job.
Phelan said he expects that Johnson will continue to rely on these types of town hall meetings to garner local concerns.
“It’s a great way for the congressman to keep in touch with constituents when he’s in Washington,” said Phelan.