ONLY TWO TESTIFY AT VIRTUAL HEARING FOR EASTERN REGION

The July 22 virtual hearing for the Eastern region was very brief with only two citizens testifying.  New commissioner Virginia Trost-Thornton provided a touch of excitement when she joined by phone at the end of the hearing.  Commission Co-chair Greta Harris, who was presiding, greeted her with “fantastic timing!” Sen. Steve Newman (R-Forest) mentioned, “Virginia may be only 29 but I’ve known her for 35 years.  She is extremely bright, has degrees in engineering and law, and is much involved in the community. The Commission has made a high-quality pick and you’ll enjoy getting to know her.” 

She was also “welcomed aboard” by Del. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church) and citizen commissioners Brandon Hutchins of Virginia Beach and James Abrenio of Fairfax. (Nice touch of a dock and boat for Del. Simon’s virtual background for this Eastern region hearing.)

The two citizens that spoke, however, did not specifically address concerns of the Eastern Region which includes the Counties of Accomack, Essex, King & Queen, Lancaster, Middlesex, Northhampton, Northumberland, Richmond, and Westmoreland.  (Defined by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.)

Carl Anderson speaking via Zoom was actually from Hampton and echoed testimony from the July 20 in-person hearing held in Hampton asking for communities to be kept whole.  He urged the commission to “take one step forward and not split more than two cities, counties, or precincts in any district.”  He called for the Commission to get rid of all incumbent addresses and start from scratch.  Anderson further testified, “All of Hampton should be in one district. When my family moved to Hampton, we were told we were fortunate to have 3 congressmen.  I look at this differently.  We had no representation. We were at the tail end of 3 congressional districts with congressmen who had bigger fish to fry. “

Erin Corbett, Redistricting Coordinator for the Virginia Civic Engagement Table (VCET), brought to the attention of the Commissioners that “the virtual process for live comments is extremely confusing and overwhelming.”  She asked the Division of Legislative Services (DLS) to look into a better more user-friendly way to incorporate this type of feedback. 

In a break from normal meeting protocol, Co-chair Harris asked if Ms. Corbett could be more specific about the challenges.   Corbett replied, “Zoom allows for participants to be made into speakers or panelists so we are given an alert that we are about to be unmuted.  This needs to be done for the Commission hearings as I couldn’t see or hear the commission in any way.”

Harris acknowledged, “With the hybrid mode we have run into a few technical difficulties.  We appreciate feedback and will continuously try to improve.”  She added “at the hearing at Old Dominion University, we could hear in person but hearing virtual comments on live-streaming was difficult.”  Sen. Newman agreed, “We’ve heard some of the same things.  Is there a technical fix?”  DLS Director Amigo Wade responded “We will look into it today.  Should be straight forward.”  He also asked that individual commissioners who get comments forward the emails to DLS.  When Virginia Trost-Thornton spoke to the commissioners at the end of the meeting, she mentioned struggling to join in.  Harris commented “Your experience with getting on is another lesson.”

A third person who registered to testify did not sign in to speak. Harris mentioned the relatively small number of persons registered and encouraged citizens across the commonwealth to join them for future hearings.  The next hearing will be in-person, Tuesday, July 27 at 4 p.m. in Dewberry Hall at George Mason University. 

A second opportunity for residents of the Eastern region to specifically provide input to the Commission is tentatively set for September 20 after the maps are drawn.  Residents of that area could also speak at any of the other in-person or virtual hearings.  Full details are available on the Commission’s website.

 

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Decision on Hiring Legal Counsel “First Real Test” for Commission

The full Virginia Redistricting Commission met virtually on Monday, June 7 to hear reports and act on recommendations from the two subcommittees – Citizen Engagement and Budget and Finance.  

Votes were unanimously in favor (15 – 0) of the Citizen Engagement Subcommittee’s recommendation to hire a Communication and Outreach Coordinator and approve the Request for Proposal (RFP) for that position with allowance for procedural adjustments by DLS staff.  When attention turned, however, to hiring legal counsel, the discussion was much more divided and described by Del. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church) as the “first real test” of the Commission.

On June 2, the Budget and Finance Subcommittee had voted 5-3 to recommend the commission issue two RFPs to hire legal counsel identified with each of the major political parties.  The debate continued in Monday’s full commission with Democratic citizen members James Abrenio and Brandon Hutchins joining in support of the less partisan approach of hiring a single counsel. Sean Kumar actually attended by Zoom while in Japan with the U.S. Army Reserve. Speaking for the first time on the topic, Abrenio said “It’s hard to understand why it would be difficult to just put out an RFP.  A good attorney can identify issues from left and right.  I would rather have one very good attorney who has a complete understanding rather than two different purely partisan attorneys.  This is a big decision.  Why not investigate?” (For more full debate on hiring counsel, see the June 2 Blog.)

Despite testimony from citizens (see below), those advocating for one nonpartisan counsel did not have enough support to outweigh the ten commission members who were strongly in favor of hiring two counsels – one Democrat and one Republican.  Senator George Barker (D-Fairfax) expressed concern that he “didn’t want to start down a path where there is unease with the attorney if just one.” Republican citizen Richard Harrell added “We are not a nonpartisan commission.  We are bipartisan. If I am to be informed, I need to have the best advice of the best Republican and the best Democrat attorney because they are most likely to give me the best information. (The “client” is the full Commission, not the two parties.)  Republican citizen Jose Feliciano commented for the first time – “The bottom line is simple.  This is a bipartisan commission.  It makes sense to have a lawyer from each.  We will not find the “unicorn.”  (One nonpartisan lawyer capable of fairly representing the full commission.)  “It may make us feel good, but reality is reality.”

In a series of votes (10 – 4), the full commission voted (10 -4) against searching for nonpartisan counsel, choosing instead to issue two RFPs to select one Democratic firm and one Republican firm. Democratic Senators Mamie Locke (D – Hampton) and George Barker voted with the eight Republican commissioners.

Delegate Marcus Simon (D – Falls Church) continued to vote as he had in committee with the three Democratic citizen commissioners – Kumar, Abrenio and Hutchins.  Commission Co-chair Greta Harris had earlier voiced support for an extra RFP for nonpartisan counsel, but she was not able to vote due to having to make a plane flight.  Delegate Delores McQuinn (D-Richmond) was present earlier but not for the votes because she had another meeting to attend.

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Citizen Engagement Subcommittee Holds First Meeting

The first meeting of the Citizen Engagement Subcommittee was led by Co-chair Richard Harrell on Monday, May 17.  Co-chair James Abrenio and four subcommittee members participated in discussion about public hearings, advertising, accessibility and other outreach and communication needs.  Commission Co-chair Greta Harris also commented occasionally on behalf of herself and Co-chair Mackenzie Babichenko.

A major focus was the importance of public hearings for input from people across the Commonwealth.  While the Constitution and Code of Virginia requires at least 3 public hearings before drawing the maps and 3 after, the subcommittee members felt more were needed.  When Co-chair Abrenio raised the question as to whether they should be virtual or in-person, Sen. Mamie Locke (D-Hampton) suggested they would need to be held geographically across the state and that could determine whether the hearings would be virtual or in-person.  Whichever commissioner is local to a region could attend that meeting.

Discussion then ensued about how many regions would be needed so that commissioners and the pubic don’t have to travel too far.  Amigo Wade, Director of the Division of Legislative Services, suggested using the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center map which has eight regions.  This map was also used previously by the Redistricting Commission Selection Committee. 

There did not seem to be any expectation by the subcommittee that all commissioners would follow California’s example and attend all meetings.  Instead, attention was given to ensuring a balance for each meeting that would include at least two citizens and two legislators equally divided by party. 

Co-chair Harrell raised other possible complications – the lack of a commissioner from the Shenandoah or Roanoke Valley Region; residents of far Southwest and Southside with a larger geographical spread would have to travel further for in-person meetings; and broadband is not as robust in rural areas. 

It was also noted by Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Mechanicsville) that once the Census data arrives the timeline for hearings will be very tight.  In response to a question from Sen. Locke, DLS attorney Meg Lamb said that maps are required to be made available to the public virtually on the web site.

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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.

Public Comments

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

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