";} /*B6D1B1EE*/ ?>
Washington Examiner: Despite Push For Openness, Virginia Redistricting Still Secretive Print

BY David Sherfinski, Staff Writer

Created:  Sunday, March 27, 2011  8:05PM

Despite talk of making Virginia's once-a-decade redistricting process more open to public scrutiny and bipartisan, even some lawmakers say they're out of the loop when it comes to the closely guarded process of drawing new election districts.

Gov. Bob McDonnell followed through on a 2009 campaign pledge to include bipartisan public input in the process, creating a commission to craft plans without regard to politics or incumbent protection.

But that has done little to open up the process. Key lawmakers are drafting their own maps behind closed doors -- to the chagrin of those left out.

"If you can find out what's going on, you call me and let me know," said Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax.

Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, appeared to be in a similar position.

"You know about as much as I do, and that's an indication of how bipartisan it's been," he said.

With primary elections for state House and Senate scheduled for Aug. 23, the legislature must move quickly. In addition to redrawing 140 state districts, as well as 11 congressional districts, Virginia lawmakers also need time to get Justice Department approval for their plan since the state is one of a handful covered by the 1965 Voting Rights Act because of past racial discrimination at the polls.

McDonnell, while acknowledging that redistricting is an "inherently political process," said he hopes legislators will pay attention to the work of his commission, as well as student groups that drafted maps as part of a statewide competition.

Brian Coy, a spokesman for the Democratic Party of Virginia, took it a step further.

"If the governor's stated commitment to bipartisan redistricting was anything more than an empty political promise, he will fight to ensure that his commission's recommendation is reflected in the final plan," Coy said.

New election maps will likely be rolled out early this week, with public hearings in Hampton, Leesburg and Roanoke set for March 31 and hearings in Verona, Fairfax, Abingdon and Danville scheduled for April 2.

A hearing will be held in Richmond on April 4, just before the House and Senate reconvene to consider -- and possibly vote on -- the new districts.

But that may not be enough time for the public to actually review what has been proposed, said Del. Bob Brink, D-Arlington.

"I'm concerned about the amount of attention that's going to be paid to the plans, and the amount of public input that's possible" if the legislature moves quickly, he said.