Unofficial town hall meeting draws big crowd

Rep. Frelinghuysen declines to attend

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  • Christine Clarke, Lake Hopatcong resident, who organized the Sparta town hall Photos by Meghan Byers

  • Popular response was so large, two meetings were held

By Meghan Byers

– "We are participating in a tradition older than the Declaration of Independence," John Hartinger told attendees of an unofficial town hall meeting at the Sparta Veterans of Foreign Wars post last Sunday afternoon.

Approximately 180 constituents of New Jersey's 11th congressional district arrived over the course of two meetings, eager to discuss their concerns. Many attendees touted miniature American flags, and wore buttons bearing the logo "NJ 11th for Change" – the name of the group responsible for organizing the event.

Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ11), who has served District 11 for 22 years, was not present. He has not held an official town hall since 2013, a fact the 6500 members of NJ 11th for Change find troubling.

Hartinger, who called the meeting "an experiment in civic engagement that is self-organized" is part of the steering committee for the organization, which has set up one of these unofficial town hall-style meetings in each of the four counties that Frelinghuysen represents. They have invited the congressman to speak at each one.

NJ 11th for Change began as a small group of concerned citizens conversing on Facebook, and soon expanded from "small gatherings around dining room tables" to the now-weekly "Fridays with Frelinghuysen" demonstrations outside of Frelinghuysen's Morristown office. The demonstrations began in January and have drawn hundreds over the past few weeks. A recent petition to request a town hall with Frelinghuysen received approximately 2700 signatures.

The 11th Congressional District includes municipalities in Essex, Morris, Pasaaic and Sussex counties. Five towns in Sussex County are in the 11th District — Sparta, Stanhope, Byram, Ogdensburg and Hopatcong.

Debra Caplan, a Montclair resident and another member of the organization's steering committee, said that group members were initially told by Frelinghuysen's staffers that arranging a venue for a town hall would be too difficult.

"We said if that's the impediment, then we will take care of the venue," Caplan said. "We've had thirty volunteers up at 1 AM over the past two weeks, all people with full-time jobs."

“I am aware that certain groups have scheduled what they are calling ‘town hall meetings’ and I applaud the effort," Rep. Frelinghuysen said in a statement last week. "I am happy that they are exercising their First Amendment rights to engage on the big issues of the day and endorse their right to free expression.

"But my goal is not argument. My goal is to continue the same civil discourse I have had with my constituents over the years."

Caplan, however, believes that these methods of communication, which include "telephone town halls" and scheduled appearances at local events, are not enough to facilitate meaningful discourse.

"We need a regular dialogue where each side can offer their perspective," Caplan said. "We want to see the congressman put in that effort."

"A phone call whereby he selects who participates is not fair or inclusive," agreed Christine Clarke, Lake Hopatcong resident, who organized the Sparta town hall.

Although Frelinghuysen did not respond to the invitation to speak at Sparta's event, that didn't stop his constituents from discussing their concerns about his positions. NJ 11th for Change arranged a panel of four speakers to answer questions in the congressman's stead: Horace Chamberlain, a retired teacher and former three-term mayor of Jefferson Township; Craig Garcia, political director for the NJ Working Families Alliance; Jordan Goldberg, senior policy adviser for the National Institute for Reproductive Health; and Elliott Ruga, policy director for the NJ Highlands Coalition.

More often than not, however, the panelists were unable to provide answers. "Only the congressman can answer that," was a common response. Organizers promised to record and pass each question along to Frelinghuysen.

Although discussion topics tended to lean liberal, NJ 11th for Change considers itself a "nonpartisan coalition," and panel member Elliott Ruga referred to himself as "a proud registered Republican." Clarke stressed that the event was meant to be nonpartisan.

"We want to encourage everyone to get engaged," she said. "We welcome everyone." She explained that the first town hall was held in Sussex County in order to "reach out to traditionally Republican areas."

Attendees were invited to participate in a live online poll using their smartphones, with results shown in real-time using a projector. Constituents answered a variety of questions, such as "In the past month, have you received a response from Rep. Frelinghuysen?" (65.1% chose "No".)

The majority of the meeting was devoted to the question and answer session.

"Forgive me, I don't like public speaking," said one attendee, before going on to express fears about his social security benefits being impacted by the uncertainty surrounding the Affordable Care Act.

Another constituent asked, "Why is the district such a funny shape?", provoking first laughter, and then a serious discussion about gerrymandering.

Sparta resident Sherry Heller spoke about incidents of hate crimes in local schools, including Nazi graffiti and bomb threats – and urged non-minority residents to speak up on behalf of their "friends and neighbors at risk."

"I wasn't going to say anything, but you inspired me a little bit," one mother responded, going on to say that these hate crimes were "not a new thing," and that she had taken her teenage son out of school because of such threats. "I don't know who I can talk to anymore. I don't know who I can reach out to anymore," she said. "I have fears; my son has fears."

When the NJ resident of fifteen years revealed that she was a veteran who had served following 9/11, she received enthusiastic applause. The room quieted when she added, "I don't think I would serve my country today."

Despite the controversial issues discussed, the overall atmosphere remained friendly – a deliberate choice by the group's organizers.

"We're not here to yell at anybody," said Caplan. "We're not here to antagonize anyone. We want a respectful, two-way dialogue."

Many of the town hall participants expressed frustration at what they felt were inadequate responses from their congressman.

"We've received so many boiler plate letters that we could make a banner out of them," said Clarke, laughing. "We're thinking about doing it."

When Hartinger asked how many people had become politically active following the November election, nearly every hand in the room went up. "We all awoke," said Hartinger. "And we're just getting started."

The Sparta event had two seatings in response to overwhelming interest, and was live-streamed on both Facebook and Twitter. Attendance is expected to reach between 300 and 500 at each of the three remaining town halls scheduled this week, which will take place in Little Falls, Boonton, and Livingston.

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