By Ali Mislowsky
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Seventeen organizations that support open government in Virginia have formed a coalition to increase transparency in the General Assembly and foster greater citizen participation.
The coalition, called Transparency Virginia, wants legislators to give more advance notice of committee and subcommittee meetings and to record the votes when panels quietly kill bills.
“Citizens who want to testify on bills need lead time so they can plan child care or days off from work to travel to Richmond,” said Megan Rhyne, director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. When committees and subcommittees call or cancel meetings quickly and with little notice, she said, it’s hard for citizens to participate.
Rhyne also said recorded votes are important.
“It is impossible for citizens back home to monitor their representatives when a bill’s history, as entered into the Legislative Information System, simply states that it was tabled or ‘passed by’ without any indication of who supported that decision and who did not,” Rhyne said.
She spoke last week at a press conference at which leaders of Transparency Virginia discussed the coalition and its goals.
Anne Sterling, president of the League of Women Voters of Virginia, said Transparency Virginia is made up of 17 organizations, including the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, the Virginia Center for Public Safety, AARP Virginia and the Richmond First Club.
“We are non-partisan, non-ideological, and we intend to be non-confrontational. We expect to work with legislators to make things better,” said Sterling, who thanked Delegates Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, and Jim LeMunyon, R-Chantilly, for their support and attendance at the press conference.
The Virginia General Assembly convened Wednesday for a six-week session. Sterling noted that this is a short session and that lawmakers will consider a lot of bills: Almost 2,000 have been introduced so far. But that’s no excuse for legislative panels to avoid the coalition’s suggestions, Sterling said.
“We think that nothing less than 100 percent compliance with fair procedure is what we should be aiming for,” she said. “Our plan is to work with the leadership of both houses. We want people to know we’re here. We’re not there to find villains or to point an accusing finger; we’re here to help point out problems that we think together we can solve.”
Another concern of coalition leaders is overlapping committee meetings – when two panels meet at the same time. This is a problem not only for citizens but also for lawmakers, said Ben Greenberg, legislative coordinator of Virginia Organizing, an advocacy group for low-income people and a member of Transparency Virginia.
“I’ve personally had to actually inform legislators that a bill that they are concerned about is about to be heard in another committee, and I’ve seen those legislators rush from the first floor to the ninth floor to have an opportunity to speak on those committees and vote on those bills,” Greenberg said.
“This is a concern because it makes it almost impossible for a citizen to cover all the meetings they want to cover and participate in.”
Capital News Service is a student news-gathering program sponsored by the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University.