Congressman Steve Chabot could give Olympic gymnast Nadia Comaneci a few pointers about doing quick backflips.
Less than three days after Chabot prohibited the use of cameras at a supposed “town hall” meeting in North Avondale and used the services of a Cincinnati police officer to stop offenders, the congressman is rescinding the rule for future sessions.
CityBeat reported on Chabot's Big Brother-style tactics in this week's issue, even though the Chabot staffer who enforced the rule never responded to our request for comment. We also criticized the congressman for not letting residents directly ask him questions, instead only accepting queries that were written in advance on paper.
But Chabot's staffer, Jamie Schwartz, told The Enquirer Wednesday that both of those rules would no longer be in effect at future town hall meetings. The reversal comes after Chabot's tactics received national attention via the ThinkProgress website and other political outlets on the Internet.
Chabot's next town hall meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday at Westwood Town Hall, 3017 Harrison Ave.
After a CityBeat photographer attended Chabot's town hall meeting Monday evening in North Avondale and told the news editor about what he saw there, which included a police officer being instructed by Schwartz to confiscate cameras, the editor emailed Schwartz the next morning seeking comment. Specifically, CityBeat asked what “security concerns” does the use of cameras raise, and whether the police officer was on-duty and being paid by taxpayers. Schwartz never responded.
Here's what Schwartz told The Enquirer later, after all the media attention:
Schwartz said that sometimes at the town hall meetings, citizens ask questions about their own personal situations and the Chabot staff did not want them videotaped. The media cameras were allowed to continue to roll, Schwartz said, “because they can be expected to respect people’s privacy.”
But, at this meeting, as at other recent Chabot town hall events, participants were required to sign in as they entered and write out questions for the congressman. Members of the staff chose which questions he answered at Monday’s meeting.
By the time Chabot holds his next town hall meeting at Westwood Town Hall Monday, Schwartz said, the rules will have changed. People will be allowed to ask questions of the congressman directly and cameras will not be seized.
See, Mr. Chabot imposed the onerous rules solely out of concern for you, dear voter. Uh-huh.
David Little, a Democratic political consultant from Clifton who is working with ProgressOhio, a liberal organization, on health-care reform issues, was one of the people removed from the meeting for using a camera.
“A broad coalition of health-care activists and many others have sought to influence and speak with Congressman Chabot throughout this summer and have been repeatedly thwarted in ‘town hall’ settings by rules that defy the very meaning of a town hall,” Little said. “All questions have to be pre-written and the selected softballs are read by Rep. Chabot’s staff and he answers in any way he wishes.”
Referring to the Aug. 22 meeting, Little added, “Last night, for supposed ‘security reasons,' they again not only banned citizen speech, but the photographing and filming of the congressman speaking as well, and his security team enlisted the help of the Cincinnati Police to enforce this clearly unconstitutional policy with the threat of arrest and the confiscation of two video cameras until the conclusion of the meeting. Clearly the only security issue involved is that of Congressman Chabot’s ‘job security.'
“Dismal exercises such as this must leave his constituents bewildered, thinking they had stumbled into an anti-democratic nightmare where authorities dictate appropriate speech in public places and seize personal property at the request of the elected officials,” he said. “These policies simply cannot stand legal scrutiny nor the smell test of any citizen interested in an honest and open discussion of public policy issues that impact the lives of their families.”
Another local Democratic activist, Alliea Phipps, also was prevented from filming the session.
“Chabot is my elected representative in Congress,” Phipps said. “It makes no sense. He wants people to have the right to carry a gun into a public meeting and carry a gun into a bar, but he is afraid of cameras at a public meeting? Get real.”