Redistricting Commission Holds First Public Hearing in Farmville

 

The Virginia Redistricting Commission held its first in-person public hearing July 13, and got the message from the majority of persons who spoke that it should “make Lynchburg whole again.”

The hearing at Longwood University in Farmville was the first of eight hearings the commission has scheduled over the next four weeks, four of them to be held in-person and four held virtually. A few dozen people showed up in person for the first hearing and close to 70 more were recorded as watching the livestream online. To accommodate the livestream, the commission switched to YouTube as its medium, and some viewers had trouble determining where to go once they accessed the commission’s new channel on that site. There was further frustration when remote viewers could not hear the audio portion of the hearing for the first three speakers: Michael Hankins, a Republican supervisor from Lunenburg County; Liz White, director of OneVirginia2021; and James Ghee of the Prince Edward Branch of the state NAACP. A Division of Legislative Services (DLS) staff member said afterwards that the audio would be restored when the hearing was archived on the commission’s website.

White provided a copy of her prepared remarks following the hearing. She used her time to describe how her organization is working with other non-partisan groups, including the Virginia NAACP, the League of Women Voters of Virginia, and the Virginia Civic Engagement Table, to help promote the commission’s meetings. She also said her organization was actively soliciting public comments from all Virginians and providing opportunities for them to share information about their communities through written, oral and video testimony.

In addition, she said OneVirginia2021 intends to provide this input to the commission in a “regionally relevant way,” both via email and in person at future meetings. Finally, she offered once again to provide her organization’s “expertise from working on this issue for the last decade.” This, she suggested, could range from sharing what the organization has learned from the best practices of other state commissions to providing introductions to “experienced independent map drawers and other experts.”

The commission had agreed to send at least four members to each hearing, evenly divided between the political parties, citizen and legislative members, and chambers of the General Assembly. The Farmville hearing was led by the commission’s Democratic co-chair, Greta Harris of Richmond, and attended by five other members: James Abrenio, a Democratic citizen from Alexandria, Jose Feliciano, a Republican citizen from Fredericksburg, Sen. Stephen Newman (R-Forest), Rep. Les Adams (R-Chatham) and Sen. George Barker (D-Fairfax).

The hearing began at 5:30 p.m., and with only eight persons signed up to speak, it adjourned at 6:10 p.m. Barker did not arrive until right after the final public speaker and spoke briefly at the end. (The other commissioners introduced themselves at the outset, but did not make statements.) Under the commission’s procedures, persons are permitted to sign up to testify starting one hour before a hearing begins and ending one hour after it starts, but the first hearing did not last that long. A DLS staff member remained at the hearing site, but said no more speakers arrived before the deadline.

The commission has scheduled its hearings in eight different regions of the state, coinciding with regions as defined by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center. But there is no restriction on who can speak where. The first hearing was designated for the “Southside Region,” which includes Lunenburg and Prince Edward counties. On July 15 at 2 p.m., the commission will hold a virtual hearing designated for the “West Central Region.” Persons wishing to speak must register by 2 p.m. on July 14 at this site. 

Five of the eight persons who spoke at the hearing came from Lynchburg to urge the commission to reunite the city under a single legislative and Senate district, the way it had been before the last round of gerrymandering. Several said that they had been told that dividing the city into two districts would give it more political clout, but they contended that the change had only sown confusion, and that had led to apathy and anger. One of the speakers, Jack Underwood, noted that a new law requires the commission to try to preserve “communities of interest” and argued that the city itself was a “community of interest” and that “the current division harms us.”

Helen Wheelock, another city resident who argued for putting the city back together, said she was “real excited to see the [redistricting] process open and to have our voices heard.” She thanked the commissioners for “putting in the work and making the hard decisions.” But she also urged them to start “with a clean, empty map,” and to bring in professionals to help them.

At the end of the hearing, Harris thanked the participants for “taking the time out of your busy schedules.” She added, “We’re super excited about this new process and just honored to be able to serve our state this way.” After Barker arrived on the stage, Harris told the audience that the commissioners “share information and we try to be transparent.” She said she was “extremely appreciative of the values and approach the commissioners have brought” to their work.

–Sara Fitzgerald, LWV-Falls Church

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