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Collins' resistance to holding town halls stirs opposition

Rep. Chris Collins refuses to hold town hall meetings with constituents.

As a result, he's got his name up in lights.

Two electronic billboards – one in Hamburg, one near the I-90/I-190 intersection – now ask the question: "Where's Chris Collins? WNY would like a word...Host a town hall meeting, Mr. Collins."

The billboards will goad Collins for a full week – but Collins, R-Clarence, doesn't do town halls. Neither does Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo.

Of Western New York's three House members, only Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, regularly meets constituents in the group settings.

It's obvious, though, that some voters in Collins' sprawling congressional district want to meet him and ask questions.

Michelle Schoeneman, co-founder of the Facebook group Citizens Against Collins, found that out when she started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for a billboard.

She expected it would take her a week to raise enough money for one electronic billboard. But instead, she raised $3,330 in four days – enough for two.

"People are not happy with Chris Collins," Schoeneman said. "People want their voices heard, and he refuses to do that."

Collins told WGRZ last weekend that he regards town halls as "useless," adding: "What you get are demonstrators who come and shout you down and heckle you. They are not what you hope they would be, which is a give and take from people actually interested in getting some facts."

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Demonstrators have indeed been common at town halls hosted by Republican lawmakers in recent weeks, just as they were at town halls hosted by Democrats before the passage of the controversial Affordable Care Act seven years ago.

This time around, protesters seem mostly motivated by Republican promises to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The demonstrators have been so vociferous that House Republicans had a briefing last week where they discussed how to best protect themselves if the protests get out of hand.

Some Republicans have complained, too, that their town hall meetings have been overrun by people from outside their districts.

Michelle Shoeneman, who runs the Citizens Against Collins Facebook group with a friend. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Still, Schoeneman – a teacher and political novice from East Aurora, which is in Collins' district – said Collins has a responsibility to meet with constituents. Voters want to talk to him about GOP plans to repeal the Affordable Care Act and his support for President Trump, she said.

Schoeneman's Facebook group has more than 1,000 members, and many contributed to her billboard campaign.

"The response has been overwhelming," she said.

But Michael McAdams, Collins' spokesman, is underwhelmed. He said Collins attends hundreds of events in his district each year and regularly meets with constituents at those events.

"The left-wing activists, many of which reside outside of NY-27, organizing these publicity stunts will never be satisfied, despite having multiple opportunities to share their message," McAdams said. "The fact is only three months ago, voters in NY-27 overwhelming elected Congressman Collins with 68 percent of the vote.”

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While Higgins doesn't hold town halls, either, he doesn't regard them with the disdain heard from the Collins camp about the meetings.

Higgins said there's no reason for him to hold town halls because he's omnipresent in his compact Buffalo-based district. He regularly visits community organizations, meets constituents in small groups and drops by unannounced on occasion when his staff holds "Congress on Your Corner" problem-solving sessions.

"It's just a different way of approaching it," he said. "In my daily routine, I'm engaged with people, whether it's planned or not."

Higgins said House members with sprawling districts – such as Reed – often feel a greater need to host town hall meetings to make their presence known and hear from constituents in areas far from the lawmaker's home base.

That's been Reed's approach. Since his 2010 election to Congress, he's held more than 200 town hall meetings across his vast district, which now stretches from Lake Erie to Ithaca.

"We have always believed to represent people, you have to listen to people," Reed said on his weekly conference call with reporters. "This is something I enjoy. I look forward to it."

Reed has four more town hall meetings set for this Saturday in Ashville, Cherry Creek, Great Valley and Fillmore. The format will be the same as it has always been, with the congressman fielding questions on a range of topics, and with no effort to pre-screen attendees.

Asked for his thoughts on Collins' and Higgins' refusal to hold town halls, Reed said: "I defer to Chris Collins and Brian Higgins on how they can best represent people in the district."

For Schoeneman, her first GoFundMe campaign was so successful that she's started another – to buy an electronic billboard in the eastern part of Collins' district.

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