Why a Virginia Advocacy Group Is Recording Legislative Committee Hearings

Progress Virginia’s Eyes on Richmond project, developed as a workaround to the state’s decision not to record committee hearings itself for public consumption, is an effort at "radical transparency" in legislation, according to the group.

A Virginia advocacy group—with the help of a bevy of videographers—is working to solve one of the state legislature’s largest transparency problems.

Earlier this month, Progress Virginia launched its Eyes on Richmond project, an effort to televise Virginia General Assembly committee hearings. This solves a gap in access: Currently, daily floor sessions in the Virginia House of Delegates and Senate are broadcast online, but the committee hearings—where much of the action around legislation takes place—aren’t. And the state doesn’t store video from these sessions for later watching.

Anna Scholl, the executive director of  Progress Virginia, suggests that the hidden nature of the committee meetings isn’t an accident.

“I’d say the system is intentionally opaque,” Scholl told The Virginian-Pilot. “The amount of notice between when a bill is introduced and its appearance in committee is short. It gets 10 to 15 minutes of discussion and then on to the next thing. The process is not easily accessible to regular citizens.”

Students With Smartphones

The issue is made more problematic by the fact that Virginia has numerous population centers, meaning that most of its residents don’t live particularly close to Richmond, the state capital. For example, college students at the state’s major universities who might want to study these hearings could live more than 100 miles away—too far to travel in person.

That’s where Eyes on Richmond comes into play. With the help of videographers, a bunch of smartphones, and the steadying arms of a tripod, these committee hearings are getting the chance to play out before the public eye. (The videographers, mostly college students and legislative fellows, are paid $15 an hour for their work, per the Pilot.)

Not that the presentation is perfect—the Pilot notes that the group’s videographers often find themselves working at bad angles or picking up background conversation. But it’s better than what was previously available. A Daily Press report noted that Virginia is one of just nine states that does not offer online streaming of committee hearings.

Radical Transparency

Eyes on Richmond, which Progress Virginia describes as “an ambitious new radical transparency project,” is the second such attempt to bring sunlight to the state’s legislative process. Since 2007, Richmond Sunlight has stored copies of the daily video feeds of the House and Senate floors—at times purchasing DVD copies for this purpose.

“They’re pretty dry, but they are the best way to see what the House did on a given day,” the Richmond Sunlight website states.

Progress Virginia’s project, launched with the current 45-day legislative session, is just getting off the ground, but Scholl says its value is essential.

“If even five people are watching, it’s worth it to us,” she told the Pilot.

(Progress Virginia screenshot)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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