Budget and Finance Subcommittee to Set Extra Meeting on Draft RFPs
The Virginia Redistricting Commission’s Budget and Finance Subcommittee decided May 27 to schedule another meeting at the beginning of June to give it more time to review the language of several draft Requests for Proposal for legal services.
Sean Kumar, the subcommittee’s Democratic co-chair, praised the “rock star team” at the Division of Legislative Services for the work it has been doing to support the commission. But subcommittee members received three new draft RFPs right before the start of their meeting, and some wanted more time to review them. Sen. Stephen Newman (R-Forest) said that some would want to do a “deep dive” into the RFP language before the subcommittee provided a recommendation to the full commission at its June 7 meeting. (The subcommittee anticipated scheduling a meeting on June 1 or 2, possibly in the evening this time.)
The new draft RFPs would seek to identify lawyers that could make the case that they could provide non-partisan support to the commission, as well as firms that traditionally work for Democrats or Republicans. At previous meetings, legislative members had said that finding a non-partisan firm would amount to finding a “unicorn.” DLS staff member Brooks Braun, who prepared the drafts, said the commission could decide to send out more than one RFP. The draft RFPs start on page 8 of this document. Braun added that if commissioners had a vision of how they would work with partisan counsel, that could be included in the RFP. DLS staff said the RFP would be placed on its website and on the state’s regular procurement website, but that copies could also be sent to lawyers who might be interested in doing the work or who had represented the legislative caucuses in the past.
Kumar continued to express his concern about the optics and expense of hiring two partisan counsels. In response to his questions, it was explained that in the last two redistricting cycles, the legislative caucuses had paid for hiring their legal support. Kumar questioned whether the commission could, in fact, hire counsel representing the political parties. Braun explained that the language of the procurement would make clear that a law firm worked for the commission as a whole, even if was chosen on the basis of its partisan affiliations.
Before the end of the meeting, Newman observed, “The commission will have a vote, and we’re used to winning and losing, and we’ll see where we end up. But ultimately, there is going to be a vote.” Kumar said he agreed.
The DLS also prepared a draft budget for the subcommittee to review, but it held off making a final recommendation. That draft can be reviewed on page 7 of this document. Under the proposal, the commission would spend a total of $1,190, 247.49, or about 56 percent of its total two-year appropriation of $2,139,000. Before the delays associated with the 2020 Census, it had been expected that the commission would have spent more of its budget by now, but DLS confirmed that unspent funds could be rolled over when the new fiscal year starts in July.
After Newman commented that the $240,000 line item for three map drawers seemed “extraordinary,” DLS staffers explained that the estimate was based on the high end, assuming that a consultant would draw the initial map and then address questions and modifications, as needed. DLS said its research had indicated those services would cost between $100,000 and $60,000, and explained that it had specified hiring three map drawers because the commission would need to prepare three sets of maps, covering House, Senate and congressional districts. Newman also suggested that the DLS review how the General Assembly procures legal support for its bond work to guard against consultants submitting bids aimed at the budgeted amount.
The draft budget plugged in line items for the approximately $400,000 that was already spent on the commission’s behalf, and the $250,000 that the commission’s Citizen Engagement Subcommittee proposed to cover the cost of holding eight in-person public hearings and four virtual ones, that would each be attended by at least four commissioners and two DLS staff members. It also proposed spending $50,000 to hire a consultant to manage communications and outreach. The draft budget included $136,192 to cover the cost of 14 in-person meetings of the commission, at $9,728 each, and that same amount to cover the costs associated with commissioners traveling to Richmond to be trained on using the commission’s map-making software tool. A figure of $100,000 was also specified to cover the cost of hiring a consultant who could provide a racial voting bloc analysis.
It was noted that law firms might make proposals that would include map drawing or racial voting bloc analysis services. The consensus was that those services would not be needed until later in the year, and that RFPs could be issued if they would not be provided by legal counsel. It was also noted that some firms might suggest consultants with whom they had worked in the past. The hiring of a communications consultant was thought to be the next priority, and DLS staff said they would work to prepare a draft RFP for those services.
In reviewing the proposed budget for map drawing, Sen. George Barker (D-Alexandria), who has been acknowledged as the person who largely drew the Senate maps in 2011, quipped that he should consider resigning from the Senate and becoming a map drawer instead because he could earn more money that way. When Kumar asked about legal challenges to the 2011 maps, Barker responded that the maps drawn by the Republicans were overturned by a three-judge federal panel, which, he said, “had made a big deal” of the fact that the Republicans had not performed a racial voting bloc analysis. Barker added that he did not know what conversations might have gone on in the other caucus. (Del. Margaret Ransone, (R-Kinsale) was not present for the subcommittee meeting.) Del. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church) also observed that in a case challenging the boundaries of the 3rd Congressional District served by Rep. Bobby Scott, the plaintiffs had been awarded legal fees, and thus the taxpayers had been forced to foot that bill.
After DLS described the basis for its proposed budget line items, Simon questioned whether more money should be included to improve the commission’s website. He commended the DLS’s recent improvements, but noted that the Virginia code requires that the commission provide a website that can accept comments and proposals from the public. (The commission’s website was recently moved towww.virginiaredistricting.org.) Simon said that the new website still does not have that capability and wondered whether a “more robust” website should be developed, in light of the statutory language and the fact that the commission still had monies available.
Julie Smith of the DLS staff responded that CityGate GIS, whose map-drawing software the commission will use, has a component for public input. (Since June, groups throughout the state, including the League of Women Voters, have been training citizens in how to use a variety of new software tools designed to help them draw maps describing their communities of interest.) Braun noted that the mapping tool had not yet been incorporated into the commission’s website because the Census data had not been received. But he said that the commission might want to “develop a mapping tool for communities of interest” and that an outreach coordinator might make that kind of recommendation He said he would include that idea in the draft RFP he prepared for those consulting services.
Kumar again expressed his concern over the perception that more experienced legislators might be drawing the maps, with the citizen members “along for the ride.” He said this issue should be discussed by the full commission. He mused whether a citizen might ultimately submit a map that could turn out to be the commission’s final map.
DLS staff members reminded subcommittee members that the commission’s proposed procurement timeline was “pretty aggressive,” anticipating that the RFPs for legal counsel would be posted on June 8 and services contracted by July 12. While the commission could adopt an expedited procurement approach if necessary, staff recommended following the standard one if time permitted, noting that in its review of state commissions, none had made use of expedited procurements.
Mackenzie Babichenko, the Republican co-chair of the full commission, said it was preferable to “have as much information as we can get on the front end” to do the procurements correctly. She also advocated sending drafts of the approved RFPs to other commission members so that they could review them in advance of the full commission meeting “and be happy with it.” Babichenko said she would also be interested in seeing the RFPs from other state commissions that the DLS staff had obtained.
Before the end of the meeting, the DLS staff explained that materials are sent to all commissioners at the same time, no matter on which subcommittee they serve. In addition, the staff said the materials are simultaneously posted to the DLS website for the public to review. (The DLS has created a new tool through which it can send emails to interested members of the public, but has not yet used it to notify the public that new materials are available for review.)
As subcommittee members discussed their schedules for setting up an additional meeting, Simon observed that it might be good to have an early discussion about clearing schedules for the 45-day time period during which the commission will be required to draw its maps.
Greta Harris, the full commission’s Democratic co-chair, observed that the commission did have “a financial cushion” and “since we are flying the plane as we build it, I don’t think anyone would mind if we underspent” the budget, so long as the process was “transparent and non-partisan.” Harris said that each subcommittee was asking the other “to make their best recommendations” and “we are giving each other grace that if adjustments need to be made, they will be made.”
Reflecting on the commission’s work so far, Harris commented that “even though we don’t know each other really well, I can see the trust and camaraderie” that has already developed. She said that subcommittee members needed to trust that the other subcommittee was doing its work, and that she hoped subcommittee members would rely on the work of the other subcommittee to expedite the commission’s work.
–Sara Fitzgerald, LWV-Falls Church