Citizen Member Gilliam Resigns From Commission

The Virginia Redistricting Commission was thrown another curve at its first in-person meeting July 6 when it was announced that Republican Marvin Gilliam, co-chair of its Budget and Finance Subcommittee, had submitted his resignation, effective the next day.

Under the commission’s enabling legislation, the full commission, rather than the Commission Selection Committee of appeals court justices, is designated to select Gilliam’s replacement. The member must come from the list of potential commission members submitted by Senate Minority Leader Thomas K. Norment because he was the legislator who nominated Gilliam. The Division of Legislative Services staff said it would reach out to the remaining names on Norment’s list (page eight of this document) and forward the applications of those who were still willing to serve to commission members for their consideration. It was expected that the commission would make a decision at its next meeting, scheduled for July 19 at 10 a.m.

The names of Norment’s nominees and a zip file that includes their applications is still available for public review on the commission’s website, under materials for the January 6 meeting of the selection committee. The commission’s Republican co-chair, Mackenzie Babichenko of Mechanicsville, and Richard Harrell, co-chair of the commission’s Public Outreach and Communications Subcommittee, both were appointed from Norment’s list, leaving  a maximum of 14 names, four women and 10 men, for consideration, assuming all are still interested. One of the women is Black and one, Hispanic. The applicants live in six of the state’s eight regions; none, however, is from the Southwest, where Gilliam lives. Gilliam’s inclusion on the list of nominees drew attention after it was reported that the former coal-mining executive from Bristol had donated more than $900,000 to Republican candidates in the state.

Gilliam’s resignation comes as the commission faces new requirements to meet in-person and as it is about to begin a busy month of in-person and virtual public hearings, four of each,  directed to eight designated regions. More times and locations of those hearings were announced at the meeting; the commission committed itself to having in-person representation at every hearing from both citizens and legislators and from both parties; under a tentative schedule posted by DLS, Gilliam had committed only to attending the September 24 in-person hearing scheduled for his region of the state.

Without a communications consultant in place yet, DLS staff said it had been placing ads in print media and distributing press releases to alert the public to the schedule of upcoming hearings.  Staff have also made use of a Twitter account, and a listserve that sends out notifications to persons who provide their e-mail address on the commission’s website. In response to a question from a legislator, the staff said that all of the hearings would be covered by public broadcasting outlets and would be recorded for later viewing.

With the lifting of emergency procedures put in place for the Covid-19 pandemic, meetings of the commission and its subcommittees must now be attended in-person by a majority of both legislative and citizen members to achieve a quorum. Members are still permitted to participate virtually if an in-person quorum is achieved. The July 6 meeting was delayed for a few minutes as the commission had to wait for a legislative member to arrive to achieve its quorum.  No members of the public sought to address the meeting, which was still carried by livestream.

The commission voted to move forward with competitive negotiations to hire its partisan legal advisers. It voted, 11-3, to proceed with competitive negotiations with the Republican proposal, identified as “Schaerr Jaffe.” Two Democratic citizen members and one Republican citizen voted against the motion, but did not explain their votes. In earlier deliberations, Democratic members had expressed concern about the higher hourly rates proposed by the Republican law firms.

Del. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church) acknowledged that there “has been a lot of comment in the blogosphere” about some of the clients the Republican firms, Schaerr Jaffe of Washington and Taylor English of Atlanta, had represented. But Simon noted that the commission had made a decision to hire partisan firms, and because of that, the commission’s decision now had to be based on whether the firms were qualified to do the work. He said that it was not “a political decision,” and voted to support the motion.

The commission received proposals from two Democratic-leaning firms. It voted unanimously to enter into negotiations with both parties, the law firm of J. Gerald Hebert and Crimcard Consulting, and to see if they could share responsibilities. The consensus was that on both sides of the aisle, the commission would deal with a lead attorney, once the arrangements were worked out.

Commission Co-Chair Greta Harris said she and Babichenko, the Republican co-chair, would choose a mix of members from the Budget and Finance Subcommittee to negotiate with the firms.

Regarding the commission’s RFP for proposals for public outreach and communications, the DLS staff said it had received one proposal in response to its initial RFP, for which the deadline was extended. Interested parties have until July 9 to submit proposals for portions of the work, which were broken out into separate RFPs in hopes of attracting more proposals.

The DLS staff also distributed a memo clarifying whether commission members could meet virtually or vote by proxy. The memo concluded that they could not do either, but suggested that legislation could be put forward in the General Assembly’s special session this summer to permit members to record a vote if they had to leave a meeting before its adjournment.

At the close of the hour-long meeting, Harris encouraged commission members to take advantage of being in Richmond to receive some training on the software the commission will use when it begins to work on its map drawing. Harris said that working with the software “will help inform our decision-making on whether we want to engage with map-making consultant in the future.” After she had received some training earlier in the summer, Harris said she supported bringing in outside help.

At the end of the meeting, commission members commended the work of the DLS staff. It was noted that DLS has devoted a substantial portion of the agency’s overall human resources to the work of the commission.

–Sara Fitzgerald, LWV—Falls Church