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A Hummel Report Investigation

Don't Count on It

For many of us email is often the easiest way of getting in touch with somebody directly and in a hurry. That is, unless you're trying to reach the vast majority of lawmakers in the General Assembly at their state email addresses.  This week Jim Hummel puts the legislature to the test. Find out how your senator and representative fared.

For a list of legislators who DID NOT RESPOND, click HERE.

For a list of legislators who sent an AUTOMATED RESPONSE, click HERE.

For a list of legislators who DID RESPOND, click HERE.

SCRIPT

For many people email has become their primary form of communication. Fast and direct, it's a good way to get through to friends and those who you usually might not be able to like elected officials.

The Rhode Island General Assembly, like many around the country, now has email accounts for all of its 75 House and 38 Senate members. But how effective are they when you are trying to reach a specific lawmaker?

``You very very seldom will hear from somebody unless you're their constituent.''

Tom Letourneau is a retired businessman and former School Committee member in Cumberland who keeps a close eye on both local and state politics. He will often dash off an email to an elected official or media outlet about a pertinent issue. His latest concern: the debate over taxing non-profit organizations.

But Letourneau believes the vast majority of lawmakers aren't seeing his - or your - emails.

Letourneau: ``I always send them with delivery confirmation. The majority of them I don't even get back a `was read.' Chances are most of those emails are sitting in the inbox somewhere until whatever the system has in place for them to just automatically go away.''

So we decided to find out for ourselves.

Last month we sent an email individually to every member of the legislature with the subject line: Question. And a one  line message: ``How do you plan to vote on the civil unions legislation?''

We sent it a week before the vote from a residential account instead of the Hummel Report email, so they wouldn't know it was a reporter and so it would have a better chance of breaking through any firewalls.

And here's what we found:

We received a personal  response from only 18 percent of members in both the House and Senate.

12 percent of the  House  members, and 8 percent of the Senate came back with an automated response  - usually saying how busy they  were and might not respond immediately.

We heard nothing back from 68 percent of the Senate members and 74 percent of the House.

Letourneau: ``I think the biggest problem with email is that so much email comes through to these people that sometimes - and I do it and I'm sure you do it - if the subject line doesn't capture your attention or you don't recognize the email address it's coming from, these people are so bombarded with emails they just can't read them all. You've got a lot of these do-gooder organizations that will contact  their 500 or so members and tell you: bombard representative so-and-so or senator so-and-so to let him know you're position on this.''

We found the automated emails have the same boilerplate language that asks for a name and address - and says the legislator would respond by the U.S. Postal Service - an extra step that comes with extra expense.

But the nearly one in five lawmakers who gave us an answer did so in a way many of us do - brief,  quick and no cost to the message.

Representative Spencer Dickinson said: ``Thanks for your note. The answer is: leaning toward. What district do you live in? What is your perspective?

Rep. Arthur Handy sent a note - then a follow up clarification.

Sen. John Tassoni offered a simply: Yes.

Rep. Daniel Gordon initially sent an automatic response,  followed within a day by a personal response.

Rep. Rene Menard's email gave us an automatic kickback, but he offered up his home phone number for immediate attention.

The biggest surprise: the man who may be one of the busiest people in the Assembly responded with in a day. Speaker Gordon Fox answered ``I plan to vote YES.''

So we went to three lawmakers to see where email fits into their communication picture.

Ferri: `The most correspondence I get is through emails.''

Gallison: ``Postcards and letters, and I've been responding to all of them.''

Lima: ``I check my email three times a day.''

Cranston Representative Charlene Lima has been in the legislature for nearly two decades and says the amount  of email she's getting has increased dramatically.

Hummel: ``How many are you getting at the height of the session?''

Lima: ``Total emails per day? I would say, 50.''

Hummel: ``And you keep up with those?''

Lima: ``I do.''

But Lima is one of the ones who began using an automatic kickback last year, requiring a postal address and saying she responds to constituents first.

Lima: ``Last year I put the automatic response on due to the high volume of emails I wanted to ensure it was my constituents I responded  to first. So when a constituent sends me an email regarding an issue they will get an email back asking for their name and address to ensure they are a person in my district. Then I respond to them accordingly.''

The Hummel Report received complaints from some who say that type of automatic response emails - requiring a mailing address - are a veiled deterrent to contacting a lawmaker.
Bristol representative Ray Gallison says you're only going to get a response from  him if you live in his district.

Gallsion: ``I just don't have time to respond to someone who's not in my district - if someone's in the district, yes I will respond to that particular one.''

Hummel: ``How would you know whether they're in your district or not?''

Gallison: ``What I'll do...if they leave an address or telephone number, I'd be able to tell that way there.''

Hummel: ``And if they don't, you just don't respond.''

Gallison: ``No I don't respond if they don't.''

Representative Frank Ferri of Warwick also has the boilerplate automatic response on his email.

Ferri: ``A lot of the emails you get are spam. Those multiple emails from around the country, so I don't answer those. I definitely answer all the ones that are from my constituents. So you go through emails  and because I'm on a lot of committees you'll get emails from all over the state and I try to answer those.''

Representative Lima says she's going to start using email to the constituent's advantage soon.

Lima: ``I'm working on collecting all of my constituents' emails so I can keep them updated on what I'm doing.''

But bottom line: If you're trying to get an answer from - or a message through to - a lawmaker, don't count on email to get the job done.

At  the State House, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.

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