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Va. Senate panel votes to keep public hearing rules for Confederate statue removals

By Graham Moomaw

(VM) – A proposal to eliminate the legal hoops Virginia cities and counties have to go through before taking down Confederate monuments failed in a state Senate committee Tuesday after several Democratic legislators said they were uncomfortable rewriting the law to make public hearings optional.

The bill, which had already passed the House of Delegates, was presented as a way to give local governments more flexibility to remove Confederate statues quickly in response to public safety concerns.

As part of the nationwide protests against racial injustice following the police killing of George Floyd, demonstrators in Virginia tried to pull down several Confederate statues themselves. They occasionally succeeded, but one protest in Portsmouth took a tragic turn when a toppled statue struck a man on the head, leaving him gravely injured.

“I understand one extreme incident in Portsmouth where somebody got hurt,” said Sen. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomac. “But extreme situations often make bad law.”

By a voice vote, the Senate Local Government Committee chose not to move the bill forward, opting instead to write letters seeking more input from the Department of Historic Resources and Attorney General Mark Herring.

Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William, noted that he witnessed the removal of Richmond’s Stonewall Jackson statue in person and felt it was a “positive move.” But he said he felt the public hearing requirement should be preserved.

“Any legislation that does not afford public comment, I would be strongly hesitant about,” McPike said. “That’s one of our principles of democracy whether we’re pro or con on something.”

Earlier this year, the Democratic-led General Assembly passed legislation empowering local governments to take down Confederate statues and other war monuments, but the House and Senate differed on how easy the process should be.

The law that passed requires localities to go through a public engagement process lasting at least 60 days and give institutions like museums, historical societies and battlefields an opportunity to claim any statues or monuments marked for removal.

Numerous localities have begun the process of removing Confederate monuments, some closely following the state-mandated process and others — most notably Richmond, the former Confederate capital — citing emergency powers to take them down immediately with minimal public notice.

The bill introduced in the special session would have scrapped the mandatory process, allowing local officials to dispense with their statues as they see fit.

Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, the bill’s sponsor, said she wanted to give local officials more leeway because “the world has changed” since legislators left Richmond in March.

“Someone got hurt, in grave condition, because the public took it upon themselves, with the understanding we are not moving like we should to address these issues,” McQuinn said.

The bill had passed the House on a 54-43, party-line vote.

Lewis, McPike and Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield, voted with six Republicans in a 9-5 vote to effectively end the discussion on the bill for the special session.  The law change would not have taken effect until January, when the General Assembly will reconvene for its regular 2021 session.

Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, tried to keep the bill moving by offering a revised version that would have preserved the public hearing requirement while creating an exemption for Civil War monuments causing safety issues.

“I think that gives a carveout that jurisdictions could use but it still protects, I think, the obligation that local governments have always adhered to,” Favola said. “Which is having a public process when they’re moving property.”

Her offer failed after others pointed out it could be seen as interfering in ongoing litigation filed against Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney challenging the legality of his decision to remove statues on an emergency basis.

McQuinn pointed out that her bill would still have allowed localities to conduct their own public process, only free from state-imposed rules on how it should go.

“It’s not a one-size fits all process with us governing from afar,” McQuinn said. “They can have the discussions within their localities.”

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