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Arizona Town Hall – since 1962

April 11, 2011

What if you could get a diverse group of people together twice a year to have a meaningful discussion about opportunities and problems in the state?

And have the best minds available delving into the topic to provide background information?

That’s pretty much the winning formula for Arizona Town Hall, which was created in 1962 for just that purpose.

For the past five years, faculty members from ASU and the University of Arizona have sought experts and compiled comprehensive reports on such topics as biosciences, housing, government revenue, healthcare, land use and education.

Each spring and fall, Town Hall is convened either at the Grand Canyon or in Tucson, and 120-150 Town Hall members plus interested citizens gather for three days to discuss the selected topic.

Anyone in Arizona can join Town Hall. Membership is $100 per year (students may join for $10). Corporate membership levels range from $500 to $50,000 or more.

Arizona Town Hall currently has more than 1,500 members from across Arizona, said Tara L. Jackson, a former trial lawyer who is president of Town Hall.

There are two major sponsors of Arizona Town Hall – The Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust and the Flinn Foundation.

Town Halls, or town meetings, date back to the Colonial days in New England, and they have long been a way to bring citizens together for democratic expression.

Jackson said Arizona’s Town Hall, with its particular structure and focus, is unique in the United States. “Only two other states have Town Halls – New Mexico and Oklahoma. They modeled theirs after ours.

“Town hall started when Arizona was a much smaller state,” Jackson said. It was held in remote locations to get people away from the fray. As Town Hall continued to grow, we continued to refine the process. But the basic principles have changed very little: bring together diverse perspectives, present comprehensive research, and have respect for all viewpoints.

“Everything about Town Hall is drawing on diverse voices in the state. We send out a survey to members about what they would they like to talk about. At our annual meeting, the executive committee looks at possible topics.”

The main criteria, Jackson said, is whether Town Hall can make a difference with the topic. “Immigration, for example, is something we cannot make a difference with.”

Following each Town Hall, Jackson and the board members give presentations on the topic, summarizing the research and discussion. “We conduct more than 40 outreach programs for each Town Hall,” said Jackson. “We’ll go out and do breakfast or lunch with Rotary clubs or schools, for example. Those discussions are recorded too.”

Copies of the initial report are sent to all state legislatures and elected officials, along with a summary, Jackson said. “Some do read the summary.”

While there is no way to measure the overall impact of the reports and Town Hall discussions, Jackson said one indication of their success is that the reports “are often used as textbooks, and managers will order them for their staffs.”

Sometimes the results come out of informal moments at the Town Halls. “Four people were standing around talking during the Town Hall about who is responsible for the state’s children, and they had an idea about a license plate as a funding source. That license is the one that says ‘It shouldn’t hurt to be a child.’”

Major recommendations from Town Hall also are adopted, such as merit selection for judges – judges do not have to campaign for their offices – which came from recommendations at a 1973 Town Hall. And in 2009, the recommendations included a temporary sales tax to help education, which also was implemented.

There is also anecdotal evidence, Jackson said. “One participant ran for city council after participating in a Town Hall. A student told me that just participating had changed his life.”

Bill Harris, president and CEO of Science Foundation Arizona, told Jackson he credits Town Hall with helping bring him to the state from Science Foundation Ireland.

“I was very impressed with the content of the Town Hall and the participation when being recruited to Arizona. I attended one meeting during this process and made a presentation as well so I got to know many of the people,” Harris said.

“What has disappointed me, though, is that I assumed (hoped?) that the output of the town hall directly influenced the political leadership and shaped policy but that seems to be a greater challenge.”

That is the goal of Town Hall, Jackson said. “In my mind, Town Hall is a mechanism for people to get together and talk about policy – what is good for the entire state.

And it’s a place where “civil discourse” is expected and encouraged. “People remember the atmosphere of Town Hall,” Jackson said. “I was a trial lawyer, but what I recognized was that at the end of the trial no one really wins. It’s not the best way to resolve conflicts. With Town Hall you build connections, relationships.”