BY TAYLOR BENNETT, DIRECTOR OF COMMUNITY BASED POLICY, THE HUB
Despite removing their obligation to conduct public hearings, public pressure prompted the House of Delegates to hold their first public hearing on a virtual platform (Microsoft Teams) this past Monday. More virtual public hearings are now underway. This public hearing followed the new traditions of this historic time–blending an approach of experimentation and innovation to continue moving our state forward.
Some aspects of this public hearing functioned well and could be used to create more entry points into the policymaking process for citizen lobbyists in the future. And, as with all innovative approaches, there were some aspects that could be improved upon as well.
The hearing featured many of the characteristics that an in person hearing does:
- Delegate Moore, Chair of the Judiciary Committee, kept the conversation on topic.
- Citizens gave up to three minutes of testimony on why the bill ought, or ought not pass.
- Members of the public and legislators were able to attend and hear the opinions being presented, even if they were not signed up to speak.
Several aspects of this hearing went well and perhaps even better than in-person public hearings:
- Citizens tuned in from across the Mountain State
From the convenience of anywhere with internet, citizens who felt strongly about water quality were able to make their voices heard. Barriers like child care, transportation, and time didn’t stand in the way of providing feedback to the legislature.
- A lack of physical logistics meant that more people could be heard clearly
While the refrain “You’re muted.” was heard more than once, Chairman Capito and his team did a great job of ensuring that citizens were able to speak. Additionally, there wasn’t the usual shuffle associated with getting citizens to a central microphone or the struggle to hear what they were saying in a huge room full of people.
There are still a few kinks to work out with the virtual hearing process:
- Signing up for the hearing was a challenge.
Similar to in-person hearings, citizens who wished to speak were required to sign up.
However, the time frame in which citizens could sign up was only one hour long. This one hour window was announced by email on the same day it occurred. The announcement and the sign up window took place during working hours, so those who can’t check email or make calls between 9 am and 5 pm were excluded. Longer windows and more advanced notice could solve this problem.
- The House of Delegates was not obligated to offer this hearing.
This is an excellent example of how pressure from citizens can open up avenues for participation in the lawmaking process. But prior to this year, such an avenue would already have been open. A healthy democracy is one in which citizen access to the policy making process is honored a key tenet, not withheld unless the issue is forced.
The House of Delegates has already scheduled additional virtual hearings for other bills which are under review.
This historic time has shown us all that we can innovate new ways to stay present with each other, to participate together in the work of building the kind of state we want to live in. It has shown us that many of these new ways of being together may be improvements upon the past and that this moment in our lives can be an opportunity to experiment and get better at doing the work that needs to be done.
Taylor Bennett is The Hub’s Director of Community Based Policy. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.