Holding District Dialogues

Holding District DialoguesPicture of People Meeting

District Dialogue with Ohio Representative, Ted Celeste

My first visit for the Kettering project was in February 2012 to see Ohio Representative Ted Celeste’s 40th district dialogue in the past five years. Ted has started a practice of having informal discussions in various locations throughout his district, averaging about eight a year. Very ably assisted by his legislative aide, Aleksandra Panovska, they pick out a current hot topic and then use media releases, emails, phone calls and announcements to drum up interest. The dialogues typically draw 20-25 people, although a discussion of collective bargaining law issues had over 80 participants. The tone is civil and respectful, which is indicated by the fact that the most frequent citizen participant is a Republican, while Ted is a Democrat.

I visited for a dialogue on casino gaming, something new to Ohio and the Columbus area. Ted and Aleks set the discussion at the Hilltop Y for a circle of chairs. The smallish gathering of ten people listened while Ted, sitting in the circle, provided some background on the issue and talked about how three local community colleges/learning institutions were planning to set up classes to train people to work at various jobs in the casino. Also, the casino had promised that some 1,200 jobs would be filled by locals. Aleks chimed in with very specific information about how those interested could follow up about taking courses or seeking employment. Once Ted had set the stage, he invited discussion and the participants started talking. It was relaxed, almost the sense of adults gathered around a picnic table at a neighborhood barbecue, as people opened up about the casino. With recent economic and crime problems, the group felt that a new casino in the district was a huge plus, although some mild anti-gambling sentiments were expressed. Mostly, though, the group just wished for safe streets, decent restaurants and shops, and new jobs. Several of the retired constituents mentioned that they would be trying for some of the jobs, while others mentioned their love of gaming and happiness that they wouldn’t have to travel to Las Vegas or West Virginia to have a chance to pull a few slot machines.

Ted’s role was to kick things off and then listen to the conversation. When the gaming discussion waned, he asked the group for their concerns or hopes for the area. People seemed eager to talk, willing to question one another when they didn’t understand something and just happy to chat with their representative. Ted urged everyone to talk, but generally followed a low-key, facilitative approach. For him, listening was more important than talking.

Tips from Representative Celeste and Legislative Aide, Aleksandra Panovska  
  • Keep the topic current.
  • Move the location to various spots in the district so that there will periodically be one for everyone to easily attend.
  • Use the circle of chairs for discussion.  People relax in this setting than with other seating arrangements.  It also lowers the “barrier” between constituents and their representative. 
  • Even though many of the district dialogue topics have been controversial, such as the death penalty, the discussions have always been cordial.
  • Find someone knowledgeable to come and help start the discussion.  They had invited someone to come and talk about the training program for this dialogue, but unfortunately it didn’t work out.
  • Have practical and relevant information available---in this case internet links for those interested to follow up on casino training or employment.
  • Even if you have a main topic, always ask people what brought you here and what issues are important to you.
  • Get contact and other information from attendees and, with their OK, incorporate it into the overall outreach program of the office.
  • Follow up within a week with thank you letters for their participation.
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