‘Make it quick!’ The Virginia Legislature’s short time limit for public comment leaves some feeling disrespected – LSB

Garima
8 Min Read


Virginia’s part-time Legislature is moving quickly. Time-strapped legislators expect the same from members of the public who want their voices heard.

Year after year, regardless of the party in charge, committee and subcommittee chairs have repeatedly urged those testifying at the Capitol to speed things up. They often remind speakers that the countdown timer is running or prompt them to consider whether weighing is necessary.

There is widespread agreement that some type of public comment time management is necessary in Virginia hearings, which generally do not last longer than 60 days. But critics say the way the General Assembly organizes its work means conducting particularly important deliberations and not paying attention to citizens’ concerns.

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“Virginia’s legislative calendar is not designed for public input,” said Sally Hudson, a University of Virginia professor and former member of the House of Delegates, who has called for a rethink of how sessions are organized.

One exchange last week, during which victims of violent crimes were limited in their statements, highlighted the issue and drew sharp rebukes from the attorney general, the state’s Republican governor and Republican lawmakers, who are in the minority in both chambers.

The incident occurred during a meeting chaired by Democratic Representative Vivian Watts, the third-most senior member in the House of Delegates. The committee was hearing a so-called “Second Look” bill backed by criminal justice reform advocates that would allow individuals serving long prison terms to petition the court to potentially reduce their sentence.

Dale. Vivian Watts addresses the House of Delegates at the Capitol in Richmond, Virginia, on January 23, 2007. Virginia lawmakers agree that public comment time at public hearings should be managed, but only after contact with victims of violent crimes has been cut off or prevented. From fully speaking during the recent hearing, the strict restrictions on public comment drew criticism. (AP Photo/Steve Helper, File)

After the subcommittee heard an explanation of the bill, Watts told lobbyists and members of the public that she would allow six minutes of testimony for supporters in the room, who also included some crime victims, and then six minutes for opponents.

When the opponent’s six minutes expired after just three pins, Watts tried to cut the set short. While the wife of one murder victim insisted on hearing her voice, her microphone appeared to have been silenced.

Michael Gray, whose son was shot and killed while trying to sell an iPhone in 2018, stepped to the microphone next. Watts asked him to stop talking and then rebuked him when he insisted, “I’m not happy with the performance. However, I will allow you to move on.”

“Respectfully, I would ask for one minute for Ms. Wallen… “Her son died in her arms and she just wanted one minute. We’ve been here all day. please.”

“Next speaker, please,” Watts said after a long pause, according to a recording of the meeting.

“I felt upset. I felt very disrespected,” Wallen said in an interview this week.

Watts said she tried to be clear and fair about the expectations she presented and tried to give some space to the speakers. Virginia’s tightly compressed session means that at some point, you have to move on, she said.

“We try to cover as many bills as Congress does in an entire year in eight weeks,” she said.

Although the exchange was eye-catching, it represented a common back-and-forth and highlighted the time crunch facing lawmakers, most of whom earn about $18,000 a year, and many of whom travel long distances to Richmond.

The General Assembly legislates for a politically divided state of about 8.7 million people, and considers thousands of bills in sessions scheduled for at most 60 days in even years, less in odd years. Lawmakers typically do not meet during weekends and generally stagger their weeks so that work can be wrapped up more quickly on Fridays.

At the national level, state legislatures—which vary widely in their length of session—have different policies on handling public input. Some offer visitors more time and space than others. Members of the public who visit capital cities to petition their government also face various regulations that limit the display of signs and political messages on clothing and even places where people can gather.

Virginia lawmakers can’t have issue-by-issue debates or they will run out of time, said Todd Gilbert, the House GOP leader. But he said the public deserves more time broadly, especially on sensitive topics like the Second Look bill.

Gilbert also suggested that limited public comment could have been intentional in this case.

Last year, the measure passed the Senate unanimously, but it died on a unanimous bipartisan vote in a House of Delegates subcommittee after a public hearing that included more than an hour of testimony, including emotional pleas from victims who said the measure would further… I shocked them.

By the end of public comment, then-sponsor Democratic Sen. Chap Petersen raised his hands and said, “Do what you want with the bill. … I’m sorry, so sorry to these families.”

Overall, Megan Ryan, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said the association’s time limits for speakers — which vary from committee to committee — generally seemed stricter this session. She also asked why the Senate does not take public comments online in subcommittees or allow written public comments.

Joan Port, president of the League of Women Voters of Virginia, expressed similar concerns about the Senate’s virtual certification policies and the lack of an option to provide written comments.

But other Assembly observers noted how much access and transparency had improved since the pre-pandemic days when not all meetings were recorded and there was no ability to testify online.

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The current session of the Assembly was filled with other examples of visitors and even legislators being asked to keep their remarks or questions brief. One case occurred in a House subcommittee that was discussing closing several state prisons and another in a Senate committee that was discussing collective bargaining and other employment-related measures.

“Please, make it quick!” “You might talk too much, and we’ll kill him,” said Democratic committee chairman Sen. Craig Deeds, adding of a later bill with a laugh.

In an interview, Deeds said he seeks to allow as much public input as possible, but with so many bills, “there’s not a lot of time for that.”

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