Recently, concerned citizens and I had the opportunity to discuss an assortment of issues with our elected representatives in a Tri-County Community Town Hall in Fullerton. The “Town Hall” is a time-honored tradition in American discourse; folks coming together and sharing their grievances and opinions with accessible representatives has long been a celebrated cornerstone of our democracy. In some ways, this town hall was no different. Many issues, both controversial and not, were covered: debate over Washington gridlock, anxiety over healthcare, LGBTQ rights, immigration, and the cost of education among others. What made this event different, however, was who was missing.
In fact, the member of Congress who was there to meet with residents and listen to our questions and concerns doesn’t even represent the district. Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA), represents communities in Southeast Los Angeles County. Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton) was also there. But it was the absence of Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), who does represent the district, which was clearly the source of frustration.
Representatives ducking questions and refusing to meet their constituents in an open forum isn’t just limited to this area. In fact, this seems to be the newest trend around Orange County. Packed town halls and community forums are being held all over the County, with the area’s representative nowhere to be found. This absentee representation has become a great source of frustration among residents across the political spectrum, who rightly take offense to their elected officials abstaining from public meetings. Transparency and open communication are hallmarks of our democracy. So with a struggling new administration, tumultuous global events, and contentious votes on an array of issues, we need open dialogue with our representatives now more than ever.
This lack of public discourse is compounded by a lack of transparency in Washington, especially with many unanswered questions on the Russia probe and the Trump Administration. Congressman Royce, as chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, has refused to hold public hearings on this issue and won’t face his constituents on what has become a hot button topic both locally and nationally. When conversations are no longer public, it forces the discussions into backrooms and in paid campaign ads, where there is a near complete lack of accountability.
Orange County suffers by this absentee representation because it’s not just federal matters that concern residents at Town Halls. These discussions touch on numerous local issues, including vital infrastructure needs, local school funding, public safety, homelessness, and environmental quality among many others. By not having engaged members of Congress who serve as the vital link between the district and the government, residents are not getting the answers they deserve on these key local issues. This only compounds the frustration felt by many, who can end up feeling completely ignored.
By not showing up to town halls in their districts and answering questions from their constituents, our representatives are also contributing to the erosion of trust in government. When people feel that their representatives are only present when it’s time to stump for elections and speak to their base, then what stops them from just throwing up their hands and simply wondering what the point is to participate? We can’t allow this disillusionment to spread to local government, where important decisions on community issues are still made and participation from the public is a necessity.
We deserve representatives who aren’t afraid to face their constituents, and who, even in the face of unpopular votes, can explain the reasoning behind their actions. This courage has been sorely lacking at every level of government, and it is what we require in order to have a truly open democracy.
Phil Janowicz is President and CEO of Quill and Abacus LLC, an education consulting firm and a former chemistry professor at California State University. Fullerton. He is a candidate for Congress in California's 39th District.
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