Town hall forges on despite challenges

BUCKHANNON — After collecting a petition with more than 1,000 signatures, local residents put together a town hall meeting last night hoping to address their concerns with Senator Shelley Moore Capito.  But organizers were left scrambling after they were forced to find a new venue and then learned that Capito would not attend.

More than 1,100 people signed an online petition asking for the town hall meeting with Capito, according to Edwina Howard-Jack, one of several people who organized the forum.

“I developed a petition through an organization called I was not certain I would get many signatures, but I wound up getting 1,159 at last count,” Howard-Jack said. “So, because there seemed to be a strong desire for constituents to be able to talk to Shelley Moore Capito face-to-face in a town hall, I decided to get a committee together to organize it and try to make it happen.”

The problem was getting Capito to commit to the meeting, which was planned during the Senate’s week-long recess.

“We delivered the petition to her and we have requested multiple times that she attend and have gotten no response,” Howard-Jack said Thursday morning. “We have never been able to talk to her directly. It’s always been talking to staff members, and the staff members will not give us an official answer.”

Howard-Jack said she initially left multiple voicemails over the weekend and was able to speak to a staffer on Monday who said he would pass on the information, but he never got back to her with an answer.

Captio’s office was in contact with one local official, however — Buckhannon Mayor David McCauley.

McCauley said he received a call from Capito’s office Wednesday morning, which told him the town hall was a ‘fake situation.’

After investigating, the mayor was concerned about the large number of potential attendees and told the group they could not hold the meeting at Stockert Youth Center. According to the event’s Facebook post, more than 50 people planned to attend.

“The state fire marshal won’t allow us to have more than 15 people in that room,” McCauley said. “It’s not ADA compliant, which we are required to do for public meetings.”

McCauley also said he felt Stockert Youth Center wasn’t the appropriate venue.

“We have never rented a room to anybody like that for anything except a birthday party or a bridal shower or baby shower,” he said. “It’s not the city saying no. It’s the city saying no to that particular room for that number of people.”

Howard-Jack, however, felt the debate over the venue was an attempt to squash the town hall, but said she understood the city’s concern about the fire marshal regulations.

“I feel like if we can’t get to the point where we can have civil discourse about this issue, then how can we move forward and how can we call this a vibrant democracy?” Howard-Jack said. “That definitely is what has driven me to bring people together. I have felt compelled to do this because of the direction our country is taking. I feel like we are so divided that we should be able to come together and have a voice.”

Instead of canceling the event, organizers opted instead to move it into Hyma Auditorium on the campus of West Virginia Wesleyan College.

Late Thursday afternoon, less than two hours before the event was set to begin, Wesleyan president Boyd Creasman also released a statement about the town hall.

“We are writing to make the campus community aware of a ‘town hall’ meeting that is scheduled tonight in Hyma Auditorium,” Creasman said in the statement. “The invitation has led many to believe that Senator Shelley Moore Capito will be in attendance. College administration has been in contact with the senator’s staff and can confirm that she will not be in Buckhannon tonight. The senator informed the meeting organizers, who are not affiliated with Wesleyan, of her unavailability well before the event.”

Howard-Jack, however, refuted the claim that organizers were notified of Capito’s “unavailability well before the event.”

“I never received any response until I was at work today (Thursday) around noon,” she said. “One of her staff members called me and said that Senator Capito would not be in attendance.”

Howard-Jack said she asked if Capito would be able to reschedule or have a staff member attend instead.

“They said she is not planning any town halls in the near future and unfortunately none of the staff can fit it into their schedules,” she said.

The college later clarified part of Creasman’s statement, saying Capito’s office did not tell Wesleyan when organizers were informed, just that they were in fact notified.

Amy Graham, deputy communications coordinator, confirmed that Capito did not plan to attend the town hall.

“The first we learned of this event was in a voicemail left with our office over the weekend at which point the senator’s schedule was already set for Thursday and she was unable to be in Buckhannon,” Graham said. “We learned that the event was being advertised online as a town hall with Senator Capito when several people called under the impression that the event was being organized by our office.

“In an effort to clarify this false information, our office informed the mayor and constituents who called that this event is not affiliated with our office and Senator Capito will not be able to attend.”

Graham said Capito “had events throughout the day in the northern part of the state and the eastern panhandle, including an event at Keyser Middle School as part of her West Virginia Girls Rise Up program to empower young women.”

Despite knowing Capito would not be on hand, organizers decided to hold the town hall anyway and give residents a forum for discussion.

Howard-Jack said attendees would direct questions at an empty chair to send a symbolic message about the importance of being accountable to constituents.

“I believe that also sends a powerful message,” she said. “Most of us are just seeking answers. We have concerns about the Affordable Care Act and multiple other issues. Education is top on my list. We just want to have our voices heard. That is really all this is about.”

Howard-Jack credited the volunteers who planned the town hall in their spare time around jobs and other responsibilities.

“We have put in a lot of work and a lot of hours,” she said. “We feel strongly about these issues and we wanted to do something positive in the community.”

Howard-Jack said the tight time frame was due to this week being the first recess of Congress.

“We were trying to make sure that we caught the window of time, because that is when she is supposed to be getting the pulse of the community and out talking to constituents,” Howard-Jack said.

Graham said that even though Capito would not be attending the event in Buckhannon, she values the opinions of West Virginians.

“Senator Capito respects and encourages the right of Americans to peacefully protest and make their voices heard,” Graham said in her statement. “She regularly meets with West Virginians both in the state and in her Washington, D.C. office and there are many opportunities for West Virginians to engage with her. Sen. Capito values the opinions and comments that are shared with her.”

The event was scheduled to occur Thursday evening after The Record Delta’s press deadline.

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