Commission Discusses Proposed Timeline, FOIA Rules
Co-chair Greta Harris presided over the second meeting of the Virginia Redistricting Commission on Tuesday morning, March 30. The Commissioners considered the proposed timeline which is summarized in our March 25 blog post.
The first point for discussion was whether the days of the meetings could be changed. It was recommended that the Division of Legislative Services staff (DLS) would poll members offline so personal schedules could be consulted in more detail. The next meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, April 13 but watch this blog for alerts to any changes.
Census data now expected to arrive by mid-August.
It was then announced that rather than September 30, the Census data would be available the second week in August. It will be in a different format than the data which will follow in late September.
Meg Lamb, an attorney with DLS, told the commission the state should not have any problem using the data despite the format questions. The numbers for prison reallocation were compiled in summer 2020 so these figures also will not be an issue. The mid-August arrival of the Census data will trigger the “45 day” timeline.
Introduction to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)
Commission members will generally rely on DLS for guidance, but an introduction to FOIA was provided for the benefit of new Commission members and the public. Alan Gernhardt, executive director, Freedom of Information Advisory Council, presented the slide program. (Begins on page 4.)
Of note –
- Anytime three or more members of the Commission gather to talk Commission business, they are subject to Virginia’s Open Meetings Law which means they must provide the public with advance notice, the opportunity to watch, and minutes.
- DLS staff do not count toward the number of members.
- For Commission work, legislator members must follow the same rules as citizen members. (Usual exemptions for legislators under FOIA will not apply.) This question was specifically asked by citizen commissioner Sean Kumar.
- All votes must be taken at properly noticed public meetings. No secret ballots or even written ballots. Otherwise, votes are void.
- Each Commissioner should use their special Commission email addresses and use DLS to distribute information.
- Social media may be public records and subject to FOIA if used to transact public business.
- Penalties through the courts can be costly.
- The Zoom “Chat” is FOIAble and could become a closed meeting within a meeting. Alan Gernhardt pointed out that a Commissioner on the phone would not be able to see the “Chat”. More to come on this issue.
For more specifics, we were referred to the Virginia Code on FOIA.
Written Public Comments are available on the DLS website.
18 members of the public also registered to speak but, in the end, 12 spoke. Some referred to their written public comments which were previously submitted. There were a wide range of comments:
- Several who represented advocacy groups stressed the importance of transparency, fostering citizen participation, and ensuring meetings are more accessible to the public. It is essential that meetings and materials be available in Spanish and other languages.
- Detailed suggestions were presented for a Commission website and included a 5-state survey of the best features of other Commission websites.
- Citizen members were urged to be the voice of Virginians and stand up against incumbent protection.
- Individuals also presented a redistricting strategy for Virginia congressional districts and called for the city of Lynchburg to be unified in one district.
TIP – If you want to speak before the Commission, you need to register through the DLS site when the meeting is announced. This needs to be done early as requests to speak are not accepted the morning of the meeting. You will then receive a Zoom link that you should use to access the meeting so they can connect to you when it is your time to comment. It cannot be shared with others.
Observer Corps Reporters:
Carolyn Caywood, LWV-SHR
Chris DeRosa, LWV-ARL
Peggy Layne, LWV-MC
Fran Larkins, LWV-FRA