Assembly sets poor standard for transparency

Published 10:38 pm Wednesday, April 15, 2015

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following remarks are excerpted from a statement presented during a Transparency Virginia press conference on Tuesday.

By Megan H. Rhyne

For any member of the public or press who is not intimately familiar with the legislative process, following or participating in that process is so difficult as to be nearly impossible.

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For example, when seasoned lobbyists are chastised for not following unwritten rules for opposing a bill, imagine what a citizen faces when trying to participate in person.

When engaged observers are physically present in the committee room and yet still cannot completely pick out which members of a 22-person committee shouted out aye or nay, imagine a citizen’s confusion back home when the disposition of a bill is listed online only as “subcommittee recommends laying on the table by voice vote.”

The system is set up for those on the inside, yet even many professionals are frequently left in the dark. Where decisions about state and local laws that directly and indirectly affect each and every one of us are made, the short sessions and the rapid-fire scheduling of committee meetings undermine participation by and accountability to the citizens of Virginia.

It is with this backdrop that Transparency Virginia formed in December of 2014 and today releases its report documenting the murky practices frequently seen in the Virginia General Assembly.

We are a loosely formed coalition of nonprofit advocacy groups and individual lobbyists and advocates. We met in early January to identify the three practices we would take special note of during the session:

  • Notice of meetings
The consideration of bills, and
  • Recorded votes on bills

We chose these three areas, because citizens would have little trouble understanding the fundamental role of each in the overall legislative process.

Many of Transparency Virginia’s findings are disturbing. Bills were introduced but then left in committees without ever being added to an agenda, much less given a hearing. Bills were defeated by unrecorded voice votes, allowing some lawmakers to avoid responsibility and disallowing others from making their position known. Meetings were called with notice so short as to make it virtually impossible for anyone other than the committee members to attend.

These practices paint a stark reality:  A body that prides itself on being a citizen legislature is too often a legislature that is NOT for the citizens.

It must be stated clearly and emphatically, though, that this report is not a condemnation of any one person or any one party.

Though Republicans hold majorities in both the House and Senate, it would be as much of a mistake to say, “This is a Republican problem,” as it would be to say, “This is an attack on Republicans.”

The sad truth is that these are systemic problems, problems that have developed over time, over parties and over party leaders.

Transparency takes collective will and collective action. It can’t take place in a vacuum where lawmakers tell the public only how much they want to let them know, or where the public gets to demand that every detail be laid bare.

The aim of this report, and indeed for Transparency Virginia, then, is to facilitate a conversation about what makes better open government practices. What can we do to help citizens get and stay informed? What can we do to make participation easier?

We don’t have all of the answers.

It is our hope, instead, that our elected officials today and whoever they might be tomorrow take the public’s right to know seriously.

They should work with their constituents and others to develop policies and procedures that work to the public’s benefit. And they should make it a priority to put those policies and procedures into practice.

This is what is best for us all. This is what makes us a common-wealth. This is what makes us Virginians.

Megan Rhyne Rhyne is executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, one of the members of Transparency Virginia. Email her at The Transparency Virginia report can be found at