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Editorial: Why are Democrats voting against open government?

Editorial: Why are Democrats voting against open government?

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Do Democrats believe in democracy?

That question will surely send our left-of-center readers into apoplectic fits, but two recent actions — one by the Democratic-controlled House of Delegates, the other by the Democratic-controlled Roanoke City Council — prompt us to ask that question.

Let’s deal with Richmond before we turn to Roanoke.

The General Assembly is currently engaged in a ponderous special session brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and the nation’s social justice questions that have come to the fore during this summer of discontent.

What would seem one of the easier questions put before the legislature was in the form of a bill by state Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, which would require that votes of the Virginia Parole Board be made public.

According to the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, there appear to be just two Virginia boards that are exempt from making their votes public— the parole board and the Virginia Crime Commission, whose stated purpose is to “study, report, and make recommendations on all areas of public safety and protection.” The difference is that the crime commission does, at least, meet in public so people can see who votes which way. By contrast, the votes of the five-member parole board (whose members currently include Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea) are not made public — only the final decision. Thus we don’t know if the votes are 5-0, 4-1, 3-2 or what. Suetterlein’s bill would have changed that. It passed the state Senate 29-10 (all 10 opposed were Democrats). This week, when it got to the House of Delegates, a House committee effectively killed it (for now) by referring it to further study.

What study is required? Should the votes of Virginia boards and commissions that act in our name be made public or should they not be? In every other instance, we have decided yes. Why is the parole board so different? House Democrats also tabled another open-government bill related to the parole board sponsored by another Republican — state Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham County. Among other things, his bill would have mandated a regular schedule of reports and required the board notify the prosecutors in the inmates’ jurisdiction when an inmate is coming up for possible parole. Democrats apparently see the “R” after both legislators’ names and fear a Republican trick. Indeed, it’s always possible that the more voters know about the parole board’s actions, the more amenable they might be to Republican views on criminal justice. Or not. Who knows? What we see, though, is Democrats voting against open government. Our bias is always in favor of more openness — the more people know, the better. Why are Democrats in favor of less?

Democrats may think they’re avoiding political trouble here, but they are actually inviting it: Republican can now (correctly) frame this as a case of Democrats voting in favor of secrecy. That will not be helpful to many Democrats in 2021.

In Roanoke, meanwhile, our thoughts turn not to 2021 but to 2022.

That’s when the term of the council seat held until last week by Djuna Osborne expires. She resigned last week, which triggered a decision by Roanoke City Council on how to fill her seat. Council could have called a special election. Instead it’s decided to appoint a successor. Council has set in motion an application process and a public hearing. “This is a very transparent process,” council member Anita Price said.

The most transparent process, though, would have been to call a special election. Council will appoint Osborne’s successor on Oct. 19, which means whoever that is will serve more than two years as an unelected member of council. That’s a longer term than we give to members of the U.S. House of Representatives or the Virginia House of Delegates — and they are all elected.

Council has appointed members before, of course. John Garland resigned in December 2018 and Trish White-Boyd was appointed in his place — meaning she will also serve nearly two years in an unelected capacity. (She’s now in the ballot in November’s election). Meanwhile, Roanoke City Council has already unilaterally extended the terms of four members when it changed the date of this year’s elections from May to November. That means on Oct. 19, an unelected majority will be appointing another unelected member, one who will serve for most of a full term. Does this feel right? When did holding an election become so unpopular?

Here’s the problem with this (aside from the ones we’ve already pointed out): A majority of council will surely appoint a council member that it feels compatible with. What if voters are feeling differently, though? For the most of the past two decades, Roanoke voters have generally been satisfied with the direction of council — based on how often incumbents have been re-elected and how often newcomers aligned with incumbents have been elected. Perhaps they still are. But shouldn’t voters get to make that decision?

There may be pressure on council to pick a woman. Arguably, there should be pressure on council to pick a woman. Right now, Roanoke has a distinction most communities don’t have — it’s governing body is majority female, four out of seven members. However, at least three of those four women won’t be there after November’s election. Osborne is now gone, and Price and Michelle Davis aren’t running again. That just leaves White-Boyd, who is running in November. In theory, depending on how the election goes, there might not be any women on the reconfigured council. If the Democratic ticket wins (as it usually does), then council would have just one woman (White-Boyd), not counting however the Osborne vacancy gets filled. One of the two Republican candidates — Peg McGuire — is a woman but no Republican has won a seat on council in twenty years. Kiesha Preston and Stephanie Moon Reynolds are running as independents but scheduling the council race at the same time as a hyper-partisan presidential race makes it harder for independents to win (something Democrats were surely aware of when they pushed for the change).

In the interest of having a council that looks like the city it represents, City Council ought to appoint a woman to fill Osborne’s term. But it would still have been better for voters themselves to make that decision, not a council whose majority is now serving an extended term that voters never intended.

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