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Sensenbrenner, Vukmir discuss short-lived town hall session

March 9, 2011

State Sen. Leah Vukmir has received more than 20,000 e-mails and upward of 1,000 phone calls in the past three weeks. State Rep. Dale Kooyenga says he's received so many communications that for the first time since starting his election campaign and taking office, he's not been able to answer each one.

That's why they were looking forward to meeting with residents during the U.S. Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner's town hall meeting in Wauwatosa on Monday night, they said.

"We're supposed to be accessible to the people," Vukmir said Tuesday. "Because of the volumes of calls, letters and e-mails, I was excited for an opportunity to talk to a number of my constituents in one place and explain my position on issues."

But after she was drowned out by the crowd on several occasions, especially when she said that public workers would not be losing collective bargaining rights, the congressman decided to shut down the meeting.

"Most of the questions were directed at me," she said. "But the longer it went on, the less they were interested in hearing my answers. When I did get to answer they were more interested in telling me I'm wrong than listening."

The ability to hold a civil discussion was lost and communication at the meeting reached a "total breakdown," Kooyenga said.

Sensenbrenner said it's his practice to hold two to three town hall meetings throughout the year in Wauwatosa, as he does in communities throughout the 5th Congressional District. He always invites state senators and assemblymen, both Democratic and Republican.

"Many people are confused (on the difference) between state and federal issues, so we have people who can answer questions from both," he said.

Attendees sign in with their names and addresses and people from the district are given priority in having their questions answered. At the Brookfield meeting the audience of about 150 people was courteous and respectful taking turns and not talking back, so there were time for all questions, Sensenbrenner said.

"This crowd was very different," he said of the meeting at the Wauwatosa Public Library that was so crowded it spilled out into the lobby.

Attendees criticized Vukmir for providing data about how budget cuts could impact cities - like Oshkosh - outside her district. There were shouts of "What about Wauwatosa?" She said she wasn't given the opportunity to finish her answer, but had the crowd listened they would know that the Legislative Fiscal Bureau was working on putting together numbers for all districts in Wisconsin. Oshkosh just got its numbers earlier, she said.

Sensenbrenner described the crowd's demeanor as "boorish," while Vukmir likened the opposition to changes in collective bargaining to the bullying local municipalities receive from union representatives during negotiations.

"They were there to disrupt and intimidate," she said. "Clearly they were disruptive, but they did not intimidate me."

Library Director Mary Murphy let attendees know they needed to keep the noise level down and not disturb library patrons, the congressman said. Since he wanted to enforce those rules he banged the gavel at times. A greater concern was that the large crowd could grow violent if the meeting continued, he said.

"This is the first one (of his town hall meetings) that has been adjourned because people wouldn't let someone talk," he said. "I genuinely felt that somebody was going to get hurt or there was going to be property damage."

Sensenbrenner said he didn't have an opinion on the governor's proposed budget-repair and budget bills, rather he was focused on federal issues.

"We have a bigger budget problem in Washington, D.C., and I was elected to work on that," he said.

Background: Sensenbrenner ends packed Tosa Town Hall meeting early

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