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City Council Members Urge Changes to Electronic Participation and Private Prisons in Legislative Session

(Updated 11/18) The Alexandria City Council met with state legislators this weekend to hammer out priorities for the upcoming year, complete with a few sparks as legislators and City Council representatives clashed.

A few times every year, Alexandria’s city leadership meets with state representatives to iron out what local government sees as priorities for the session. The meetings have grown substantially more hopeful in the year since the Democrats took control of the legislature.

Del. Charniele Herring (D-46), the House majority leader, said much of the upcoming session in the House of Delegates will be focused on the nuts and bolts of infrastructure. In particular, Herring said the increased reliance on the internet for many schools to operate will require the Virginia legislature to explore greater broadband access across the commonwealth.

Funding, as state Senator Dick Saslaw (D-35) noted, will also be a large part of the upcoming session. Mayor Justin Wilson said the city’s priority for funding was ensuring that state funding for schools are impacted by decreases in enrollment.

“Our enrollment numbers are down,” Wilson said. “Not as much as some — we’re down about 3% — and I know there is going to be a more concentrated effort to get a hold-harmless effort on school funding.”

State Sen. George Barker (D-39) said this shouldn’t be an issue, with the state having a hire than expected sales tax revenue.

“Sales tax revenue is up this year so far,” Barker said. “We’ve committed to make sure that any drop in sales tax revenue does not impact schools across the commonwealth.”

Wilson also asked that legislators consider pushing for additional CARES Act support, which has been vital for the city’s testing program.

“Testing three times a week is being funded in partnership with state CARES act dollars,” Wilson said. “A lot of support goes away in January. Anything you guys can do to free that up will be helpful”

Herring and City Councilman Mo Seifeldein briefly clashed as the latter pressed Herring to commit to supporting legislation banning private prisons, urging her to use her capacity as House majority leader to ensure progress is made on the issue, but Herring pushed back that she wouldn’t commit to supporting legislation she hadn’t seen yet.

“You’re asking me to commit to legislation we haven’t seen,” Herring said. “I did say I do not support private prisons. I take this issue very seriously. Don’t assume I don’t support a position of the concept, but I won’t support a bill until I see the legislation, but I do support the concept.”

Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker also pressed for the legislature to reform laws that limit online access to meetings, which currently requires physical presence in a room for elected positions with very few exceptions.

“The current law only allows members to participate twice per year electronically,” Parker said. “This body meets 50 times a year. People have had to resign for medical issues or because they had to travel. I have read every single other state’s open meeting law at this point and Virginia is in the minority in how we deal with this issue.”

Del. Mark Levine (D-45) said a bill with more flexibility in online meetings had been passed in the House of Delegates and a similar version was likely to pass the State Senate this year.

The draft legislative package will be considered by the City Council for adoption on Dec. 8.

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