A Win-Win Situation—Flemington, NJ
“Town Hall Meetings are one of the most important things we do and the last thing we would cut from our work plan,” says Lesley Gabel, director of the Hunterdon County Safe Communities Coalition. When asked why, Gabel explains that the Town Hall Meetings achieve the highest score on the coalition’s communication matrix, which details how each activity meets numerous requirements of its annual strategic plan. The matrix also shows that Town Hall Meetings respond effectively to findings from the community needs assessment survey. In addition, under a Drug Free Communities grant, participating coalitions are expected to work with 12 sectors of their community (faith organizations, schools, businesses, parents, youth, youth-serving entities, legislators, law enforcement, substance abuse services, civic organizations, media, and health care providers). This Flemington, NJ-based coalition finds that the annual Town Hall Meeting, where the focus is underage drinking prevention, is the one event that consistently brings representatives from all 12 sectors, key decisionmakers, and the community together for productive discussions and action planning.
When it comes to making important changes in the underage drinking environment, the coalition credits its April 19, 2012, Town Hall Meeting with a significant increase in the adoption of ordinances that target underage drinking on private property. The Private Property Ordinance levies stiff fines on minors caught drinking at such locations when no adult is present or held legally responsible. In 2011, only 8 percent of the area’s townships had approved such ordinances. Following the 2012 Town Hall Meeting, that percentage quickly rose to 35 percent. According to Gabel and her colleagues, support for these policy changes was activated by the April Town Hall Meeting, where legislators, law enforcement members, parents, and other concerned community members were at the same table and on the same page.
One key to getting the full benefit from an annual event is targeting the people “you really need” to attract. The coalition researched its audience to learn what incentives might be most successful in getting busy community members to attend. For example, many youth are motivated by gas gift cards rather than other giveaways or raffles. In addition, providing a “one-stop-shop” event, which included dinner, babysitting, and keynote speakers helped draw adults to the well-attended event. The coalition also worked at crafting invitations, promotional messages, and the Town Hall agenda in a way that would not deter potential participants who might be uncomfortable at a meeting devoted solely to underage drinking.
Securing the attendance of the desired audience was only half the battle, as far as the Hunterdon County Safe Communities Coalition was concerned. Seating was also a factor. When participants self-select their seats, the kind of fertile and productive interactions between representatives of diverse community sectors that is necessary for success may not occur. As a solution, the hosts set the hall with round tables able to accommodate 10 people, then assigned guests representing different interests to specific tables to ensure a mix of educators with law enforcement, parents with legislators, and health care providers with civic organizations and to seat youth members at every table.
Cards at each place seating bore appealing photos of local youth on one side and local data about underage drinking on the other. Even before the formal program began, the cards educated those unfamiliar with the issue and prompted small-group discussions.
Before the evening concluded, each table had identified a specific underage drinking prevention challenge in the community and came up with strategies to meet the challenge. The information was recorded and collected for subsequent use by the coalition in drafting an underage drinking prevention action plan. The status of each recommendation was later tracked and reported to the coalition’s membership. As an example, high school students said that it had been easier for them to avoid alcohol or to get help early for a developing drinking problem before the removal of a school-based local law enforcement officer because of budget reductions. The students had recommended that the officer be reinstated at the school and that other schools be provided with similar resource personnel. The coalition carried their recommendation to a city council meeting and reported the city council’s feedback on a listserv distribution.
The Hunterdon County Safe Communities Coalition finds the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) planning stipends important for creating its own unique Town Hall materials and in marketing its events. But because the Town Hall Meetings prove essential to pursuing its mission and reaching objectives, the group taps into other resources to hold similar events in years when SAMHSA financial aid is not available. Even more than the importance of the stipend dollars, the coalition highly values the array of free materials SAMHSA provides on the Town Hall Meetings website and, in particular, the ongoing series of Town Hall Meeting e-alert newsletter articles distributed via e-mail.
Although this coalition did not use “Getting to Outcomes,” SAMHSA’s theme for 2012 events, Gabel says that the theme and the accompanying online materials, “Got us to put on our thinking cap, and take a new view of what our Town Hall Meetings might be, as events that could lead to specific results and something more than targeted public education.” Based on the results of its 2012 Town Hall Meeting, the Hunterdon County Safe Communities Coalition is definitely getting to outcomes.
On October 18, 2012, the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA) announced that “a panel of coalition experts at the federal, state and local levels,” had selected Hunterdon County Safe Communities Coalition for a Milestones Award, one of two GOT OUTCOMES! Coalition of Excellence Awards to be presented at an annual award’s luncheon during CADCA’s 2013 National Leadership Forum. The Milestones Award recognizes the New Jersey coalition’s progress toward long-term outcomes, specifically, for contributing to declines in underage drinking in the population it serves.