Letter to House Speaker on Public Comment During 2021 Session

VCOG, Transparency Virginia and and 21 others have drafted a letter to the Speaker of the House offering suggestions for soliciting public comment during the all-virtual 2021 legislative session.

The Honorable Eileen Filler-Corn
Speaker of the House
P.O. Box 523082
Springfield VA  22152

Dear Speaker Filler-Corn:

On behalf of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, the Transparency Virginia legislative watch group and the undersigned advocates, lobbyists and organizers, we write today with observations and suggestions for ensuring and enhancing public participation during the House of Delegates’ 2021 all-virtual session.

The 2020 Special Session was the first time experimenting with all-virtual committee meetings and floor sessions. Members used Zoom to call into the proceedings, and the public was able to use the House’s existing streaming service to observe. As in past “normal” times, the streaming of floor sessions and committee meetings allows citizens who would never be able to attend an in-person meeting to observe from their homes and offices.

Lobbyists and advocates — some citizens, too — were able to both observe and offer testimony on bills in a brand-new virtual way. In talking with these various groups of people about their experiences with giving public comment in a virtual session, most understood that they had to adapt, however most also noticed areas where the system could be improved.

It is important to remember that in-person sessions involve interactions among the public, not just interactions among lawmakers. In person, when their time is called, proponents or opponents of legislation line up for their turn to speak. They can see each other. They see allies, they see adversaries. They can adapt their comments accordingly.  When committee chairs impose time limits on speakers for one side or another, there is an opportunity for speakers to coordinate. And if time runs out before they get their say, they can nod or raise hands to show agreement with others. They are seen by lawmakers and others.

Because in-person meetings carry with them more than just the conveyance of words, opinions or testimony, virtual public comment can be a hollow and often confusing experience. It is in the spirit of creating a more dynamic process for the public to participate in all-virtual meetings that the following suggestions are thus offered:

  • An upgraded meeting technology platform that accommodates more total observers and participants.
  • At the sign-up stage for offering public comment, a display of who has already signed up to testify (pro and con) on each bill.
  • Alternatively, or in addition to the above, a display during a person’s testimony of his/her name, organization and the queue of witnesses to follow.
  • Allow speakers to remain in the meeting through the duration of discussion and action on the bill they are signed up to testify for. Staff tasked with running the meeting can ensure that microphones are muted.
  • Allow speakers to sign up to comment on multiple bills.
  • Extend the deadlines to sign-up for comment and/or give greater advance notice of meetings and agendas.
  • Create a shared repository of written comments submitted through the sign-up system and prominently display or highlight where it can be accessed.
  • Provide an easy link alongside the meeting to the meeting’s agenda.

It would also be beneficial to take a page from the K-12 and higher education playbook and have members guarantee office hours for the public to virtually visit and offer perspectives on pending legislation.

While we understand it will be impossible to fully replicate the in-person experience, we are confident that the hard-working staff of the House clerk’s office can and will customize the system to remedy any shortcomings the leadership confirms are a priority.

In-person meetings and sessions may be unsafe under the current pandemic, and as advocates  for Virginia citizens on a wide variety of topics and causes, we are aware that we must reorient ourselves to this current environment, just as lawmakers are doing. However, we remain convinced that improvements can be made to enhance and amplify the public’s voice as we all strive to shape sound public policy in Virginia.

Signed with the utmost appreciation and respect,

Megan Rhyne
Virginia Coalition for Open Government
Transparency Virginia
540-353-8264 // mrhyne@opengovva.org

Becky Bowers-Lanier
B2L Consulting
Transparency Virginia


Peggy Friedenberg
Kate Addleson
Sierra Club Virginia Chapter
Suzanne Rothwell & Leslie Tourigny

Steve Haner

Thomas Jefferson Institute

Scott Price
Alliance for a Progressive Virginia
Jasmine Banks
UnKoch My Campus
Victoria Cobb
The Family Foundation
Andrew Goddard
Virginia Center for Public Safety
Laura Wimmer
Greater Richmond AAUW
Molly Jacobson
Virginia Housing Alliance
Deb Wake
League of Women Voters of Virginia
Kim Bobo
Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy
James Toscano
Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust
Jay Speer
Virginia Poverty Law Center
Anna Scholl
Progress Virginia
Betsy Edwards
Virginia Press Association
Stephen J. Rossie
Renaissance Communications/Government Relations Consultant
Lisa Guthrie
Virginia Transit Association
Nancy Finch & Michael Jackson
Richmond First Club
Danny Plaugher
Virginians for High Speed Rail
  Ruth Twiggs
Citizen Activist