An empty gallery in the House chamber. Photo by Erin Beck.

The West Virginia AFL-CIO is threatening legal action unless the Legislature takes steps to increase public access to lawmakers that has been curbed in part by pandemic safety precautions.

“There are lots of things they can do to allow the public to participate, even during this pandemic, and thus far what they’ve done, it appears, is go above and beyond to keep the public out of the process,”  said Josh Sword, president of West Virginia AFL-CIO, a coalition of unions representing about 75,000 members. 

In a letter sent to Gov. Jim Justice, Senate President Craig Blair and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw on Wednesday, Sword and the WV AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Andy Walters said the Legislature has taken advantage of in-person limitations to “to pull the shades on visibility and access, and forcefully manage the legislative process with greatly reduced opportunities for accountability from citizens, the press and political opponents.” 

The letter warns that if changes aren’t made in five business days, the union coalition will take action, including potentially going to court. 

“We’re considering all options, and legal action is certainly one of them,” Sword said. 

During a typical year, constituents can sit in on committee meetings, approach lawmakers in the hallways and watch Senate and House floor sessions. But this year, members of the public must reach out and schedule an appointment with lawmakers to enter the Capitol. 

Sword said while some COVID-19 restrictions are necessary, he believed the Legislature could increase in-person access safely. 

“Locking the doors and keeping the public out is not a healthy approach,” he said. “There’s a way they can let people [in] and still keep people safe, allow them to socially distance. It’s doable. It’s easily doable.” 

The letter points to the Culture Center, the conference rooms in building 6 of the Capitol Complex, and the House and Senate Chambers as large enough spaces where in-person meetings could be safely held.

Technology could have helped overcome some of the in-person roadblocks by letting West Virginians — at least those with broadband access — virtually watch the legislative proceedings. But there’s a big discrepancy between the House and the Senate in how easy that is to do.

While the Senate has video and audio broadcasting for floor sessions — conducted daily by the House and Senate’s entire bodies — and committee meetings, the House only offers audio for its committee meetings. And the House, unlike the Senate, does not archive its proceedings. 

Spokeswoman Ann Ali previously told Mountain State Spotlight that’s because none of the House’s committee rooms have video broadcasting capabilities. And when committees meet in the House Chamber — where floor sessions are broadcast with both audio and video — Ali said they don’t stream video to remain consistent.

The union coalition called this effort of consistency a “bizarre twist of logic” and said the audio proceedings were difficult to decipher. In addition, the WV AFL-CIO pointed out that House leadership had months to prepare video equipment, and the governor received $1.25 billion in CARES Act money that could have been used for that purpose. 

The union coalition added that “there has been no indication the House is offering virtual participation.” 

Another concern the union coalition aimed at the House was its recent public hearing rule change. 

The House traditionally holds public hearings when requested on topics under consideration to hear West Virginians’ input. Ali said January changes by the House to House Rule 84 made these public hearings virtual and gave committee chairs more discretion on whether to have them at all. 

During a House Government Organization Committee meeting earlier this month, Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, requested a public hearing on House Bill 2007, which would allow people to move to and work in West Virginia with an occupational license from another state. Delegate Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, the committee chairman and a sponsor of the bill, denied the request. The letter cited this as a concern. 

The union coalition also said both the Senate and House are frequently not posting meeting agendas in “a timely fashion so that interested members of the public can learn what bills are to be discussed and take the initiative to request access.” 

The labor organization also complained that committee chairs are too often producing committee substitutes for bills, and that those versions are not accessible online. 

In a statement provided to Mountain State Spotlight on Thursday evening, House Speaker Roger Hanshaw defended the current rules. 

“Our body has been clear on our rules and objectives since day one, as well as our need to be nimble and react to changing circumstances due to COVID,” said Hanshaw, R-Clay. “We believe the precautions we’ve been forced to take by executive order still allow the public and especially members of the media the ability to participate, observe and effect the legislative process while keeping all participants as safe as possible.”

Hanshaw said that Judiciary Committee Chairman Moore Capito announced a virtual public hearing on Thursday — something that Hanshaw said was a first for the House of Delegates. 

Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, could not be reached for comment by publication.

Douglas Soule is a Report for America corps member who covers business and economic development. A Bridgeport native, he worked as an intern at the Charleston Gazette-Mail. He has served as editor-in-chief...