Question format to continue for legislative breakfasts

By CANDY NEAL
cneal@dcherald.com

The first legislative breakfast of the year will take place Saturday.

Like at last year’s events, attendees will be asked to write down and submit their questions for state legislators representing Dubois County, and those questions will be read by a moderator.

The Dubois County Democrats requested that the audience be allowed to ask legislators questions directly. The local party doesn’t think the written format is the best way for citizens to ask legislators questions and express their concerns.

“It’s intimidating enough to ask a question,” Party Chairman Mike Kendall said. “To write out these questions can be challenging. And then you have to submit it and it’s vetted by a mediator who then decides to read it or not read it to the panel, and then the panel answers or not answers. That is fraught with problems.”

Saturday’s meeting, hosted by the Jasper Chamber of Commerce and Vincennes University Jasper, will start at 9 a.m. at VUJ’s CTIM building, 961 College Ave.

The format of the meetings includes legislators discussing the legislation they are submitting for the session, which started Monday, and then taking the written questions from the audience.

The party sent a letter to the chamber of commerce, asking that the format be changed back to questions being asked directly, as it was before last year. There are reasons why the written format is not best for citizens, Kendall said.

“First of all, there’s no room for a follow-up question. And everybody knows there needs to be a follow-up question,” he said. “Secondly, it’s too big of a burden to put on the citizens. A reporter and a lawyer know how difficult it is to ask a good question. It’s very hard to do it and write it. So you need the leeway for somebody to kinda talk their way through the question, to get it out on the table. The [responder] can ask for clarification or just answer it. And go from there.”

The chamber changed to the written format with last year’s legislative sessions because to make sure all questions are addressed in the hour and half the event runs, Chamber Executive Director Nancy Eckerle explained.

“We feel the written questions help keep things moving,” she said, “and help to keep one topic from taking over the whole event. That can happen. We want to keep the flow moving.”

She said the format is working. “We have tweaked these breakfasts over the years,” Eckerle said, “and this is just one more thing that we are doing differently. We started it last year, and we are going to continue doing it.”

The chamber sent the Democrats a written response stating the plan to keep the same format. In that letter, the chamber said that the meetings are done in an “informal and open setting in which constituents can listen to and learn from our legislators as they tell of various happenings and upcoming bills in the current legislative session.”

Kendall said he feels that is not the purpose of the meetings.

“As a former state senator, I would say that the purpose of the meetings is for the people to come and tell the legislators what it is that is bothering them and what it is they want done in the upcoming session of the Legislature, so that the legislators know what they want,” he said. “I don’t think the purpose of these meetings is for the legislators to tell the people what they are going to do.”

Citizens learn about the legislators’ plans for the session through media reports and through the mailings legislators send, Kendall said.

“Questions require you to answer things you didn’t plan to talk about,” he said. “So spontaneous questions from citizens are a different animal than written questions, handed to a moderator and read in an impersonal voice. Writing out the questions destroys the spontaneity of the meeting.”

The county Democrats’ steering committee will discuss the matter and the response received from the chamber during a meeting this evening, Kendall said.

Meanwhile, Saturday’s legislative session will include State Sen. Mark Messmer, R-Jasper, and State Rep. Steve Bartels, R-Eckerty, who have confirmed that they will attend. State Sen. Erin Houchin, R-Salem, has not yet confirmed, and State Rep. Shane Lindauer, R-Jasper, has another commitment and will not be able to attend.




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