By Owen FitzGerald
Capital News Service
RICHMOND — As legislators gather in Richmond for the 2019 General Assembly session, citizens in the far corners of the commonwealth might feel distanced from their elected representatives. But any computer or cellphone user with internet access can watch live and recorded video of state lawmakers in action.
The House and Senate each live-stream their committee meetings and floor sessions. And the advocacy group Progress Virginia broadcasts subcommittee meetings over the internet.
ProgressVA launched its project in 2017 before the legislative session. Initially, the program live-streamed both committee and subcommittee meetings — because at the time, the House and Senate provided video only of their floor sessions. Since then, state officials have started live-streaming the committees; so ProgressVA now focuses on subcommittees.
The importance of public access to subcommittee meetings cannot be overstated, as many important pieces of legislation are often killed at that level. Anna Scholl, executive director at , said the results of subcommittee votes would often remain unknown to the public.
“When we started Eyes on Richmond,” Scholl said, “it was standard for bills to pass or fail on unrecorded voice votes, and it was often impossible to know how a particular legislator voted on important bills unless you were in the room when it happened.”
That is why ProgressVA has put “legislative fellows” – college interns – in the room, equipped with a cellphone and tripod to provide live online video of government meetings.
Program Director Ashleigh Crocker said live-streaming the subcommittee-level meetings allows citizens to engage with their representatives as they decide the fate of legislation.
“We thought it was really important that citizens from across the Commonwealth be able to know how legislators were voting when they were coming to Richmond to represent them,” Crocker said.
In its first year, the Eyes on Richmond program won the Virginia Coalition for Open Government’s Laurence E. Richardson’s Citizen Award. The coalition, along with ProgressVA, is a part of Transparency Virginia, a collection of advocacy groups and nonprofit organizations assembled to promote transparency in the General Assembly on every level.
Both the House and Senate began recording and archiving committee meetings during the 2018 session in response to a bipartisan effort from the Virginia Transparency Caucus, co-founded by Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, and Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield. Likewise, the House of Delegates began recording subcommittee votes in 2018 following a push from the Transparency Caucus.
Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said the General Assembly has done a commendable job retrofitting meeting rooms to allow for the recording and streaming of committee meetings. But the work of ProgressVA to give citizens insight into subcommittee meetings has been vital to the cause of transparency in the state government, Rhyne added.
“General Assembly transparency is important because it is the work of the people,” Rhyne said. “They are making decisions that affect us as individuals and as workers and as members of various organizations and groups.”