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Talking Points -- Peterson missing point on town hall meetings

Congressman Collin Peterson is taking a political beat-down after he was quoted as saying that 25 percent of his constituents believe that the Bush Administration was in on the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

The comment didn't come out of the blue. Peterson was reacting to the movement by a group called "birthers," who dispute evidence that President Barack Obama was born in the U.S., and thus isn't constitutionally qualified to serve.

We won't go into great detail about the possibility that some of these "birthers" were likely among those in favor of changing that nagging little legal stipulation so that Austrian-born Rep. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would be eligible to run for president. Maybe with Californians giving their guv his worst approval ratings ever, the presidential eligibility crowd wanted to keep their distance from Arnold but stay on topic.

In any case, Peterson's remarks were, to be indelicate, aimed at the wing-nut fringes of society, some of whom end up confronting representatives at town hall-style meetings, and that's why Peterson doesn't schedule them.

With these folks, everything is a conspiracy: Aliens killed President Kennedy; the moon landing was faked on orders from Walter Cronkite; the CIA forced the closure of DENCO. You get the picture.

But the reality is, Peterson is mistaken in his assessment of the value of town hall meetings. Sure, there might be off-the-charts folks there spouting off, as well as angry people thirsting for any opportunity to vent their frustrations, no matter how misguided their background information or their beliefs.

That's kind of the point. Regardless what anyone thinks of us or our beliefs, we have the right -- within a broad limit -- to say anything about anything.

The value of town hall meetings is underscored just about any time local lawmakers like Torrey Westrom and Bill Ingebrigtsen come to our towns for brief visits.

First, they are generally well-attended by folks from all walks of life. Rarely are nonsensical subjects raised, and the lawmakers go out of their way to ensure that anyone with a question or two has the chance to ask them. That may seem like a "so-what" type of thing, but there are many people in the world for whom such an opportunity exists only in their wildest dreams.

Second, with a diverse group of people sitting in the same room, invariably an important issue is raised that isn't on the list of key issues that dominate the time and efforts of interest groups or the media. And you'd also be surprised how many times the legislators know exactly what the questioner is talking about and has at least a semblance of an answer, even if it's "I'll check into it and get back to you."

These can be educational moments and they are unfiltered. You can't go away from a town hall meeting not knowing how a representative feels about a certain subject unless that lawmaker is purposely vague. And that, in itself, teaches us something.

As House Agriculture Committee chairman in a district dominated by ag interests, it would be great if Peterson would change his mind on town hall meetings. It's not like he isn't accessible already at various events. Maybe the problem is semantics: What is, or isn't, a town hall meeting?

But meeting face-to-face with a representative means a lot to people, and it's an opportunity Peterson needs to embrace, even if he does have to listen to a few stories about Bush fixing the Super Bowl.