Call it a coffee klatch — not a town hall.
After a summer of criticism for refusing to hold town halls to face his Brooklyn constituents Rep. Dan Donovan (R–Bay Ridge) has announced plans for a “coffee tour” of five informal, in-person events in Brooklyn and Staten Island over the next two months at smaller venues, rather than auditorium-style meetings.
The small-scare events planned nonetheless represent a significant step forward towards openness for the congressman, who has come under fire with his constituents in the past for refusing to hold a single in-person town hall, said one Ridgite.
“It’s certainly much more of a town hall than anything he’s done before,” said Ridgite Amir Shani. “I wish he did it earlier, but this is great.”
The events will take place on five different weekends between October 28th and November 19th, with two in Brooklyn — one at an as-yet-undetermined location in Gravesend and the other at the Dyker Heights Library — and three in Staten Island. A spokeswoman for the congressman said the events do not yet have a set format, and that the goal is to facilitate conversations between Donovan and his constituents so that they can voice their questions and concerns and learn about available city agency and casework resources.
“Each event might be a little different,” said Alexia Sikoria. “The idea is for it to be an informal space for people to come in and out and talk to the congressman about whatever’s on their minds.”
Ridgites who have previously attacked Donovan for being inaccessible were cautiously optimistic that the Rep’s coffee tour is a sign of a new willingness to meet constituents in-person.
“We think it’s a little bit of progress,” said Sally McMahon, a co-founder of the progressive group Fight Back Bay Ridge, the same group that organized a town hall at Bay Ridge Manor in April that was remarkably well-attended — expect for the guest of honor, who was represented by an empty chair. “But I wish that he would just bite the bullet and hold a full-size town hall where he could fit maybe 200 people, like the one we had for him that he didn’t attend. It’s encouraging that he’s trying to meet more people; it’s discouraging that they won’t hold a town hall and do what he was elected to do.”
The congressman has said in the past that he prefers telephone town halls, Facebook live events, and one-on-one meetings to large-scale, in-person town halls because of the disruption that the latter can invite. After Ridgites protested Donovan’s support for President Trump’s so-called Muslim ban at a February Chamber of Commerce event, Donovan said the protesters “hijacked” the event and later complained that he considers town hall events unproductive and one-on-one meetings more effective ways to address the concerns of his constituents.
Sikoria said there is no cap on the number of constituents allowed to attend, and that they are focused on accommodating all attendees by finding and finalizing appropriate locations. In the press release, press and residents of the congressman’s district are encouraged, but not required, to RSVP, and warned that last-minute changes in time or location may ne necessary, in order to accommodate larger crowds, or any other “unforeseen circumstances.”
Shani, who is a member of Fight Back Bay Ridge, said he plans to attend the Dyker Heights event, and that he hopes he and others have the chance to question and speak directly with the congressman — and that if they do, he would consider the events to be town halls.
“I just hope they give everyone a chance to ask questions,” Shani said. “If he dodges the question I think it’s very important that whoever asks the question is able to get a follow-up. We all have questions. If people can get their questions asked and have follow up questions and all that, then yeah, I’d say this qualifies as a town hall. But there are a couple of ‘if’s’ there, so we’ll see.”
He and McMahon said they are also concerned about the size of the venues, and hope that they can accommodate the size of the crowds. McMahon also said she wished the congressman was hosting an additional event in Bay Ridge.
“There’s plenty of venues over here where he could have one,” she said. “We have a lot of libraries.”