Citizen Engagement Subcommittee Discusses Public Hearing Schedule and Guidelines for Citizen Input

The Citizen Engagement Subcommittee (Virginia Redistricting Commission) met for the third time on May 26.  

The Commissioners discussed options for public hearings which will be held in July and early August.  Consensus was that each of eight regions (Weldon Cooper map) will have two opportunities to provide input, one in-person hearing and one virtual; one hearing before lines are drawn, and one after. There will be some flexibility in the budget for possible additional hearings and for some of the commissioners to attend more than their scheduled number of hearings.  States such as California and Michigan which have a much larger number of hearings planned are not under the same constraints.

The Commissioners reviewed the guidelines for public input prepared by DLS, and made a few suggestions.  It was generally agreed that in-person hearings would be open to all Virginians, but the virtual hearings would focus on the needs of residents of that region.  People could sign up beforehand, and also at the in-person hearings until 10 minutes after the meeting begins.

A firm schedule of hearings will be considered further at the June 7 meeting of the full commission so that all Commissioners are able to consult their calendars.

DLS staff will continue to revise the proposed guidelines and do further research to answer Commissioners’ questions.

Read on for more details about the Subcommittee’s discussions.

Richard Harrell served as co-chair.  Several members encountered internet/connectivity issues.  All 8 subcommittee members were present.  Seven of the 8 had a lively discussion during today’s meeting.  Staff from DLS were also present.

Co-chair Harrell reminded the public that they can submit written comments to . He called attention to the Redistricting Commission’s new dedicated website:  http://virginiaredistricting.org.

Discussion of Schedule of Public Hearings

Harrell reviewed this subcommittee’s previous discussion of holding one hearing in each of the eight regions identified in the Weldon Cooper map prior to drawing the maps.  Four would be held in person in four of the regions, four would be virtual.  After the maps are drawn, but before they are submitted to the General Assembly, another eight hearings would be scheduled : again 4 in person and 4 virtually.  He noted that each Commissioner would attend one in-person hearing, probably in the region closest to them.  He noted that 2 or 3 regions are not represented by a Commissioner.

Mr. Harrell asked staff for clarification on a few points.  DLS director Amigo Wade noted that hearings are more spread out, time-wise before the census data arrives : Tuesdays and Thursdays this summer (July 13-August 5).  He noted that the second round of hearings would be compressed into one week (September 20-25) because of time restraints.  Mr. Wade noted that educational or state facilities could be used for public hearings, as was done previously for G.A. Budget hearings.  He said that dates, etc., can be adjusted according to Commission preferences.  When asked how much time would be required to upload finished maps into the website for public review, DLS staff Claire Waters responded that it took “no more than a day” to put the maps online in 2011.  Improvements in technology may make the process easier and faster.

Mr. Harrell suggested that 4 in-person hearings might be scheduled for the 4 major population centers (Northern VA, Roanoke, Richmond, and Hampton Roads) either before or after the map-drawing is done.  Co-chair James Abrenio suggested that at least 1 in-person and 1 virtual hearing be held in each region.

There was a discussion about whether to restrict attendance at any hearing to Virginians who reside in that particular region.   Mr. Harrell and Senator Mamie Locke expressed concerns that some “more active” people would speak at every hearing (or multiple hearings); that “more and more we’re going to have individuals inclined to always participate“ and speak.  Delegate Delores McQuinn agreed and wants opportunities to receive diverse opinions.  “When people have a passion… they tend to always speak to the issue. We are organized to make certain that we reach out far and wide, and that no one group or region monopolizes the discussion.”  Others agreed.  

Senator Ryan McDougle questioned why there are so many virtual meetings.  He thinks having 8 meetings prior to map drawing was “aggressive” and “significant”.  He suggested tacking on 2 hours of virtual speakers at the end of each in-person hearing.  But, he said, this may not be a good option in rural areas.  Regional meetings should be limited to residents of that region.  Mr. Abrenio wondered if it would be possible/practical to organize a local space where residents could have access to a computer in order to testify virtually – perhaps a library or community center.  Delegate McQuinn suggested that we could “kill two birds with one stone” (with apologies to the birds) by holding hybrid meetings with both in-person and virtual at the same time.  Mr. Wade said that the guidelines contemplate having virtual options at in-person meetings, depending on the facilities used and their technological capabilities.   Mr. Abrenio suggested keeping in-person hearings open to all Virginians, even those residing in a different, but near-by region; but reserving virtual hearings to those who reside in that region.  Adams and Harrell agreed that people should be allowed to attend the in-person hearing that is most convenient for them. Mr. Wade said that when the Commission decides on where and when to hold hearings, DLS will begin to identify and reserve facilities for those hearings. DLS plans to post dates ASAP so that the public will have “lead time” and can plan their calendars.  

Mr. Abrenio mentioned that several public comments suggested using the map of 21 Planning Districts rather than the 8 Weldon-Cooper regions.  He prefers to have more meetings, but wonders about logistics. He said CA and AZ hold more meetings, but he recognizes that they have had more time to plan and execute.  

Del. Les Adams agreed that Commissioners need more direction on how to conduct in-person hearings.  He pointed out that his region is the largest region, geographically; that if a hearing is held in Danville, no one from Buckingham will attend. Mr. Harrell suggested that hearings be held in more centrally-located cities or towns, rather than on the outskirts of a region.  He wants to make sure all Virginians get “2 bites of the apple”; that we should give them the flexibility to choose the hearing that is closest or more convenient.  Mr. Wade says that DLS can schedule as many hearings as the Commission wants.  

Mr. Abrenio asked if the Commission would have the flexibility of scheduling additional hearings in case something comes up.  Mr. Abrenio also suggested that he would like to attend as many public hearings as he can, rather than just the one he is assigned to.  He suggested that all Commissioners are expected to attend all hearings, whether in-person or virtually.  Sen. McDougle said it may be hard for Commissioners to attend “all these meetings”.  Mr. Wade suggested that there is enough “leeway” built into this subcommittee’s $250,000 budget request to schedule additional hearings, and/or pay per diem/travel/hotel expenses for any additional Commissioners (beyond the 4 required at each hearing) who decide to attend in-person.  The subcommittee could request an additional $20,000 for a cushion.  Mr. Abrenio again wanted to clarify that all Commissioners would attend every hearing.  No one responded to this statement.

Regarding limiting public comment to specific topics, Mr. Wade suggested that the Commission wants “public comment to be public comment about what they feel and where they think the lines should be drawn”, what matters to them.  The Commission can give suggestions of topics, but leave it open.

Mr. Abrenio suggested that guidelines and schedules for the public could (should) be published in different languages and published on social media sites, etc.

Public participation guidelines  were published on the website just prior to the meeting.  There was discussion about the “deadline”– that speakers would need to sign up no later than 2 hours prior to the start of each hearing.  Mr. Wade said that the guidelines are just a draft, that the subcommittee or Commission could revise it. The suggested deadline was to help the Commissioners know what to expect in advance. He noted that in MI, CA, and CO, hearings are held at different times of the day.  Commissioners McDougle, Locke and Abrenio agreed that sign up could be done in advance, but that people could also sign up at the public hearing, perhaps with a final cut off at 10 minutes after the hearing has begun.  Speakers would speak in the order in which they signed up.  DLS staff said that sign up could be via portal/website, email, or phone call, as well as in-person.

Mr. Wade asked whether speakers representing a group or organization would be given more speaking time (> 3 minutes).  McDougle and Locke agreed that this might be better than allowing multiple members of the group to speak as individuals for an extended time.  McDougle suggested doubling the time (6 min rather than 3 minutes for individuals).  Mr. Abrenio suggested that the Commission set guidelines that define what a “group” is;  giving the Chair of the public hearing the discretion on how to handle “group” vs individual speakers might open them up to possible litigation.  Mr. Harrell then asked DLS staff to “massage” the guidelines document to reflect this subcommittee’s discussion (sign up deadlines; group speaking time limits; establishing types of comments that will be accepted); DLS staff will do further research into how other state Commissions are managing these questions.

The subcommittee agreed that they could not establish a firm schedule for hearings without input from the full Commission.  Mr. Wade suggested another subcommittee meeting could be scheduled, or a sign up could be sent to Commissioners.  Ms. Waters said DLS could send out a sign-up based on the full Commission’s decisions on June 7th.  Mr. Wade mentioned that in 2011, hearings were held in Abingdon (SW region) and Augusta (Valley region) as well as five other regions.  Only the Eastern region lacked an in-person hearing.

Before adjourning, Mr. Abrenio noted the suggestion by one citizen to rename the subcommittee to “Public Engagement” in order to be more inclusive.  Mr. Harrell said, “we’ll think about it.”

The meeting adjourned at 11:32.

Note: Advertising, communications, social media, and website development were not discussed at this meeting.

Observer Corps Reporters – Chris DeRosa, LWV-ARL; Carolyn Caywood, LWV-SHR; Peggy Layne, LWV-MC; Fran Larkins, LWV-FRA

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