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.