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Our View: Seize chances to chat up leaders

Opportunities to get together to discuss the issues of the day with our elected leaders are disappointingly rare.

So Duluthians can jump at the chance to attend a town hall-style listening session planned for 10 a.m. Saturday at the Duluth Children's Museum, 115 S. 29th Ave. W. Sen. Erik Simonson, Rep. Liz Olson, and Rep. Jennifer Schultz — all of them DFLers representing our city in St. Paul — intend for the event to be an "open forum to discuss important legislative issues," as they stated when they announced it.

So things like a bonding bill and Duluth's steam plant project, the need for long-term transportation funding, proposed workplace laws, and even the possible legalization of marijuana in Minnesota all could be on the docket.

Our democracy is stronger when more of us participate. The listening session is an opportunity for us to do just that: to be engaged, to be involved.

We want our elected leaders listening to us and our concerns rather than talking at us at some staged photo op or ignoring us altogether. So give Simonson, Olson and Schultz credit for organizing Saturday's event, which probably isn't a first of its kind but certainly hasn't exactly been commonplace, either. They can be urged to hold many more. Their fellow lawmakers and other elected leaders can follow their lead.

"I'm eager to have more listening sessions with my colleagues; I do meet with Duluthians on a regular basis on Fridays and on weekends," Rep. Schultz said in a statement to the News Tribune Opinion page this week when asked about Saturday's event. "I am hoping we attract a large crowd. Holding listening sessions is vital for participatory democracy. It is much easier for our constituents to meet us in Duluth than in St. Paul. I'm hoping to hear about problems that can be resolved by state government. I am also hoping Duluthians who have never engaged with legislators will show up to share stories and to hear about bills and budgets."

Like Schultz, Olson has made a point of meeting with constituents at the Capitol, attending community events back home in Duluth on weekends, and embracing the media as part of her efforts to be transparent.

"Just six weeks into my first term, I am working to continue the commitment that I made on the campaign trail to hearing from constituents," Olson told the Opinion page. "This forum will be another of the many opportunities I take part in to both share and listen to ideas. With the release of the governor's proposed budget, this is an opportune time for constituents to learn more about how the budget is developed and for elected officials to hear ideas from fellow citizens."

Even if events like Saturday's don't happen often enough, they do happen. A great example is Duluth Mayor Emily Larson's City Hall in the City Community Listening Sessions. Co-hosted in different neighborhoods with the city councilors who represent those areas, four monthly sessions have been scheduled so far in 2017. The first was last night. More are to follow.

Sessions already on the calendar include March 15 with Council President Joel Sipress at Kenwood Lutheran Church, 2720 Myers Ave.; April 19 with Councilor Noah Hobbs at American Indian Community Housing Organization, or AICHO, in Trepanier Hall, 202 W. Second St.; and May 17 with Councilor Zack Filipovich at Piedmont Heights Community Center, 2302 W. Third St.

"I really enjoy these gatherings," the mayor said in a statement after also hosting a series of sessions during her first year in office. "It's an easy way for neighbors to connect with me, city councilors and staff. Equally important, however: these evenings provide us with an opportunity to connect with neighborhoods and to gain critical input. Conversations we have here guide our decision-making and help inform our work. City Hall in the City is family-friendly and open to all."

The benefits of elected leaders regularly making themselves available to provide information and to answer questions is undeniable — but only if we participate. Our next chance comes Saturday.

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