The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
March/April 2006
FEATURE
 
 

Chapter 25's Guidelines For
Putting On A Successful Town Hall

 

BY DENNIS P. KOEHLER AND JEROLD A. KLEIN

On July 23, 2005, Thomas H. Corey/Palm Beach, Florida, County Chapter 25 hosted
a Town Hall Meeting on the subject of Assured Funding for the VA’s health care programs. Then VVA National President Tom Corey attended and presented the case for congressional action. By every measure, this event was a success. We packed the meeting room, and we received positive media coverage. What follows offers practical advice to local VVA chapters and State Councils on the nuts and bolts of putting on a successful Town Hall Meeting.

This guide lists the steps that Chapter 25 took in organizing and presenting its Town Hall Meeting on VVA’s top legislative priority: securing congressional enactment of an assured, or direct, method of funding the VA’s health care system. The Town Hall Meeting can be an effective means of educating veterans and the public on key policy initiatives and communicating directly with elected officials whose votes are necessary to translate those policy initiatives into legislative action.

1. Identify the priority legislative issue that will be the subject of your Town Hall Meeting

As with Assured Funding, the issue may be national in scope, or it may involve a state or local VVA concern, requiring action by a state legislature or local government body. The issue will determine the focus and target of the meeting. 

2. Select the coordinator

Each VVA chapter should have a legislative coordinator, ideally someone with skills, knowledge, and contacts in the local political community. A committee including at least two chapter members should be assigned to plan and coordinate the event. From day one, these meeting coordinators should maintain a running file containing the names, telephone and fax numbers, and e-mail addresses of all who are contacted.

3. Select a meeting location

The site should be easily accessible with plenty of parking and well known to the news media and the public. The meeting should be held indoors, in a public facility fully wired for sound and video. We held our Town Hall Meeting in the 150-seat chambers of the Palm Beach County Commission in the County Governmental Center in downtown West Palm Beach.

4. Select a convenient day and time

Chapter 25 chose a Saturday morning, when we knew the County Commission meeting chambers would be available. We promoted this as a two-hour event, from 10 a.m. to noon. A two-hour meeting should be enough for introductions, a detailed presentation of the issue, questions and comments from the audience, and for responses from the selected officials or their designees.

5. Obtain information and technical support from VVA national staff

The VVA Staff can be an invaluable resource in preparing the legislative issue that will be the subject of your Town Hall Meeting. Chapter 25’s event, which addressed the crisis in funding for the VA health care system, came at a propitious time: The Bush administration’s budgetary miscalculations for the VA for FY 2005 drew congressional outrage and national media attention. In response, the VVA national staff had prepared fact sheets, congressional testimony, and a variety of posters and banners that publicized the need for Assured Funding and stated the case for legislative reform. As a result, Chapter 25 was able to obtain and effectively utilize these resources within a very short (three-week) time period.

6. Make arrangements for audio and visual support

Ask the operator of your meeting facility for permission to use the TV and videotaping facilities, assuming they have them. They may even agree to underwrite the costs. This request should be made sufficiently in advance of the meeting, about eight to ten weeks before the event, giving the local Board ample time to act on the request and arrange for  staff.

7. Hire a local public relations firm to ensure best media coverage

Your chapter is most likely involved in Veterans Day and Memorial Day activities that may be promoted by well-connected local public relations firms. These PR firms know how to promote these events in the local news media, via public service announcements, news releases, and press kits—often at a substantially discounted fee. Unless you have members who are savvy enough to handle and coordinate media coverage, use a PR firm. The PR firm also can produce professional- looking flyers and name tags for elected officials and their representatives, guests, and event coordinators.

8. Invite your Senators, Members of Congress, and other elected officials

Begin the invitation process by making telephone calls and sending e-mails, faxes, and letters to each targeted elected official. Be sure to include as much information as possible about your issue, providing the proposed Town Hall Meeting agendas, press releases, and local news articles. It is important that your target group clearly understands that their attendance is expected and that their names will be posted prominently on chairs at the meeting so that a failure to attend will be noted by all who attend, including the news media. The whole purpose for holding a Town Hall Meeting is to educate and inform those in power about the significance of your issue and the need for their support.

9. Invite representatives of major veterans’ service organizations

The Partnership for Veterans Health Care Budget Reform includes nine national VSOs, united in support of assured funding. Typically, the names and addresses of local VSO commanders can be obtained from the nearest VA Medical Center, the county’s Veterans Service Officer, or from a statewide veterans coalition organized to lobby your state legislature on veterans-related issues and bills. Every effort should be made to contact our newest veterans, those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, or elsewhere in the Global War on Terrorism. Each VSO should be urged to attend the meeting in force, and to speak in support of the issue.

10. Prepare the meeting room

Mount banners, place signs, distribute handouts and press releases at key locations throughout the public meeting room, preferably the day or evening before the scheduled meeting. Designate a chapter cleanup crew to take down banners and posters after the meeting is over. At the meeting, stock a table with VVA membership applications, copies of The VVA Veteran, other VVA documents, and white papers. Make them available to attendees.

11. Have guests sign an attendance sheet

Make an effort to have everyone sign an attendance sheet that includes names, addresses, and VSO affiliation. A chapter member should be assigned to handle this task.

12. Emphasize that the Town Hall Meeting is not a partisan political event

Chapter 25 promoted assured funding for Veterans Health Care as an American issue, not a Democratic or Republican cause. Given the long, unhappy history of annual budget battles with Presidents from both parties and Congress for adequate health care funding, it was obvious to us that taking a non-partisan approach offered the only realistic chance for achieving legislative success.

13. Prepare and distribute a detailed meeting agenda

Chapter 25 prepared an agenda that included all relevant information. The meeting format itself is simple: Open with a welcome, prayer, and the Pledge of Allegiance; thank all who made the meeting possible; introduce the meeting’s sponsors and participants; recognize distinguished guests in the audience; distribute handouts; and present your priority issue. Then open the floor to questions and answers, giving target audiences the opportunity to respond. Insure that chapter members pose prepared questions. And offer opportunity for closing statements by target audience, event organizers. When you adjourn, offer refreshments if possible.

14. Videotape and photograph the proceeding

One or more local chapter members should be assigned to take photographs. We arranged to have our assured funding Town Hall Meeting videotaped in its entirety by our local public-access TV Channel 20, which provided a director and used the six cameras available.

15. Conduct a post-mortem

Immediately following the meeting, assemble your VVA chapter’s key leadership group and conduct a post-mortem of the Town Hall Meeting. Identify high and low points. Event coordinators should take good notes, and as soon as possible, while memories are fresh, prepare an after-action report.

16. Supply the after-action report to VVA at all levels

Encourage your VVA state council and local chapters to attend the town hall meeting and contribute their thoughts. In our case, all three levels of VVA—national, state, and local—were present and contributed. 

17. Follow Up

Make follow-up phone calls, send notes, faxes, or e-mails to all elected officials and their representatives, thanking them for attending. Thank them for their support and participation, and remind them that a bipartisan solution is needed to resolve the priority legislative issue that was addressed at the event.

18. Adopt a resolution

This resolution should formally request immediate adoption of specific legislative action. Send copies of this resolution to all targeted elected officials and local news outlets.

The Town Hall Meeting can be a very effective tool for VVA activists in seeking widespread support for policy initiatives that have been designated a priority by VVA at any governmental level.

   

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