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House of Delegates backs constitutional amendment on redistricting, paving the way for referendum

The Virginia House of Delegates, newly controlled by Democrats, voted Friday to back a constitutional amendment to reform the state’s redistricting process ahead of reapportionment in 2021.

In a 54-46 vote that saw nine Democrats join Republicans, the House paved the way for a statewide referendum on the issue in November and the possibility of constitutional reform in time for the 2021 map-drawing process. Impassioned speeches from some of the most prominent African American lawmakers in the House, none of whom backed the amendment, preceded the vote.

The measure’s passage settled a heated, weekslong, internal fight among Democrats, who remained divided on the issue up to the highest ranks until the final vote.

House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, was visibly disappointed when a last-ditch effort to introduce a new version of the amendment, setting up an alternative plan, failed on a 53-47 vote for lack of sufficient support in her caucus.

In the Senate, where Democrats have overwhelmingly supported the constitutional amendment, President Pro Tempore Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, fist-bumped Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, who introduced the successful measure, Senate Joint Resolution 18.

“Even advocates say it isn’t perfect. But there’s a difference between not perfect and bad,” said Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, a strong backer of the measure in the House. “It’s a good product. I do think it moves us forward.”

The other House Democrats who backed the measure were Dels. Dawn Adams of Richmond; David Bulova of Fairfax; Dan Helmer of Fairfax, Sally Hudson of Charlottesville, Ken Plum of Fairfax, Sam Rasoul of Roanoke, Steve Heretick of Portsmouth and Suhas Subramanyam of Loudoun County.

On the other side was a majority of the House Democratic caucus, where members argued the measure would not end gerrymandering and does not guarantee people of color have a seat at the map-drawing table.

“[This amendment] gives us the opportunity to hide behind this process and claim we did our job,” said Del. Joe Lindsey, D-Norfolk. Last week, Lindsey, chairman of the House Privileges and Elections Committee, described the measure as “piss-poor.”

Filler-Corn said in a statement: “I could not ignore the fact that the amendment, as written, fails to prevent politicization of map-drawing and does not sufficiently ensure inclusion of communities of color in the redistricting process.”

If approved by voters, the constitutional amendment would shift power over the drawing of districts from the General Assembly to a 16-member bipartisan commission of legislators and citizens. In the event of an impasse, the Supreme Court of Virginia would have the final say. The commission would feature four lawmakers of each party from each chamber.

Republicans, who for years blocked reform efforts until the 2019 session, remained unified in their support for the measure Friday, believing it the best path to have a seat at the redistricting table now that they are in the minority.

“Nobody here stood up before civic leagues and said, ‘Vote for me, I’ll end gerrymandering in 2030.’ Nobody did,” Del. Jason Miyares, R-Virginia Beach, said on the House floor. “Give the voters a voice, and let’s try to fix the broken system.”

Earlier, the House defeated an attempt to substitute language for the constitutional amendment with a new plan, introduced by Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax.

The failed language Simon introduced would have created an 11-member commission of citizens. The membership was to be reflective of the state’s “racial, gender, political, and geographic” diversity — guaranteeing some members of color on the commission, and that the party with the political majority would have more members.

A proposed constitutional amendment must pass the legislature in consecutive years with no changes and then pass in a statewide referendum. If Simon’s alternative had passed, a constitutional amendment would not be in place to affect next year’s mapmaking.

Forty-six House Democrats voted to restart the process of amending the constitution’s redistricting provisions, opting for what they called a “better” amendment to end the legislature’s sweeping power over the redistricting process.

Simon’s effort had the support of Filler-Corn; Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria; Legislative Black Caucus Chairman Lamont Bagby of Henrico and others.

The original constitutional amendment that ultimately passed Friday fielded heavy criticism from a number of House Democrats, many of them black lawmakers. They pointed to the overwhelming support for the measure among Republicans — who for years blocked redistricting reform efforts — to argue it was a bad deal for Democrats.

Black lawmakers in the House highlighted what they said was a significant lack of protections for communities of color in the language that would be enshrined in the Virginia Constitution.

Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, one of the leading voices in opposition, has argued that the measure doesn’t guarantee racial diversity on the commission, and merely references the federal Voting Rights Act that prohibits racial discrimination in voting. Price said she feared the federal law could be stripped in Congress, leaving Virginia’s process without its guarantees.

“There was not one person of color in the group that concocted this. There was not one woman in the room,” Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, said Friday before voting against the amendment. He was referring to the committee of legislators that drew up the amendment before it was approved in the 2019 legislative session.

Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder issued a statement after the measure’s passage Friday expressing worry that it doesn’t offer sufficient protections for people of color.

“I do remain concerned that the amendment itself will not enshrine protections for communities of color in the Virginia Constitution,” he said. “I will join the people of Virginia in an effort to make sure that this legislature — and those in the future — are held to the standards in the enabling legislation that ensure that the diverse communities of Virginia have a seat at the table on the commission and throughout the map-drawing process.”

Other Democrats in and out of the legislature, including Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, and Democratic Party of Virginia Chair Susan Swecker, railed against a provision in the constitutional amendment allowing the Virginia Supreme Court to draw the maps if the commission deadlocks.

That’s because years of Republican control in the General Assembly have yielded a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. Gov. Ralph Northam also has questioned that provision.

Northam does not have to sign or approve the resolution passed by the General Assembly. In a statement, Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said: “Governor Northam has always been committed to advancing redistricting reform this year. He will carefully review the amendment’s enabling legislation to ensure Virginia voters have the most fair, representative, and transparent process possible in place before next year.”

Friday’s vote didn’t elicit much celebration in the chamber. Democrats who supported it remained largely silent after the measure’s passage. House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, whose caucus backed the measure, did not issue a statement marking the news.

Plum said in an interview that when he served in the House in 1982, when Democrats held an overwhelming majority, “everyone thought I was crazy” for introducing redistricting reform legislation.

Plum said he watched his Democratic caucus lose power and be locked out of it for years. Last year, he said, when Republicans were afraid they would lose power and Democrats were still in the minority, an “imperfect” constitutional amendment came about.

“I just thought, we can’t wait for a moment like that again,” Plum said. “It’s unlikely to repeat itself for a long time.”
Subramanyam, a freshman lawmaker, called the vote a “historic step forward for democracy.”

“We should celebrate,” he said. “It’s imperfect, but it remains a huge step forward. Now the people have a say, whether they like it or want something better.”

Many House Democrats had backed alternative legislation introduced by Price that would have reformed the redistricting process without amending the constitution. It would have created an advisory commission that guaranteed members of color, but would have allowed the legislature to retain its sweeping power over the process.

Price said the measure would allow for a better amendment ahead of the 2031 redistricting process.

Price’s measure is pending in the Senate, with poor prospects.

Lucas said in the Senate on Friday: “Without objection, House Bill 1256 will go by for the day and join those in the sea of dinosaurs.”

Assembly could face overtime amid budget breakdown on higher education funding

With time running short in the waning General Assembly session, so are tempers as budget negotiators face an impasse over higher education funding and employee compensation.

House Appropriations Chairman Luke Torian, D-Prince William, accused Senate budget negotiators of bad faith in negotiations on higher education that threaten to send the scheduled 60-day session into overtime.

In a letter delivered to Senate Finance and Appropriations Chairwoman Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, on Friday, Torian said the Senate had failed to respond to House efforts to moderate tuition increases at Virginia’s public colleges and universities. Instead, he said Senate budget negotiators had upped their own demands for student financial aid.

“I am of the firm belief that moderation of tuition is of the utmost importance to Virginia’s working families,” he told Howell. “Instead, [the Senate] doubled elements of the Senate package.”

“Needless to say, I was disappointed at the blatant lack of effort to achieve a compromise to allow us to complete budget negotiations,” Torian told the Senate budget leader.

The exchange of proposals came on an increasingly tense and frenetic day that — in terms of legislative rules — stretched from Thursday evening through Friday afternoon.

Both the House and Senate recessed just after 8:30 p.m. on Thursday and returned at 8:30 a.m. on Friday to prevent dozens of bills from dying before being acted on prior to a session deadline.

The long recess also allowed budget negotiations to resume on Thursday night, as the conference committee of delegates and senators struggled to produce a budget agreement in time for the assembly to adjourn as scheduled on Saturday. That appears increasingly unlikely, unless an agreement is reached and two-thirds of the members in both chambers agree to waive a rule requiring 48 hours to review the proposed budget for the current fiscal year and two years beginning on July 1.

Howell responded on Friday, “I have not received or seen any letter from Chairman Torian.”

“Last night the Senate conferees personally handed him and House conferees a serious proposal to resolve outstanding issues in higher education,” she said in a text message. “We are still waiting for a reply from them.”

Howell said the House had not responded to a proposal the Senate made on Wednesday, but the House provided copies of dueling responses on Thursday.

The showdown revolves around the initial House budget proposal to provide $112 million to colleges and universities that agree not to raise tuition and fees, an arrangement that was included last year for the first time in the current budget. The Senate’s higher education proposals focus on student financial aid.

The House and Senate also differ in their approaches to funding the “G3” initiative Gov. Ralph Northam proposed to provide free community college education to eligible students, support for historically black colleges and universities, and additional base operating money for Old Dominion University.

However, the House plan also embeds compensation increases for university employees and faculty in its funding for moderating tuition, an approach the Senate rejects.

“So much money is tied up in higher education and compensation, so we’re trying to unravel it,” Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, said Friday.

Norment confirmed that the impasse on higher education has prevented budget negotiators from settling differences on compensation for state employees, which Northam did not address in his proposed budget.

Howell said the budget negotiators had “made substantial progress” on other areas of the budget, including health and human resources, transportation, natural resources, K-12 education and public safety.

Last year, budget negotiators reached an agreement on the session’s last Friday night, but House Democrats, then in the minority, insisted on 24 hours to review the spending plan, so the assembly adjourned a day late.

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Virginia game department pays $900,000 in settlement of fatal boating case

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has agreed to pay $900,000 to a Martinsville family over the alleged mishandling of a fatal boating accident on Smith Mountain Lake almost four years ago.

The settlement, made final on Feb. 13, ends a long ordeal for Drew Hall, who was charged by conservation police as the driver of a boat that collided with a jet ski on July 3, 2016. Gabrielle “Gabby” Ayers, a 17-year-old passenger on the jet ski, died from injuries in the collision.

The agreement between the department, Hall and his father, Richard Hall, came almost a year after a Pittsylvania County judge threw out Hall’s conviction on a misdemeanor charge of improper boating because game department officers had withheld evidence that suggested the jet ski driver may have been at fault in the accident.

The game department issued a public statement on Friday that said it “will not pursue any further charges” against Drew Hall, whom it considers “clear of criminal liability in this matter.”

Hall is working in the legislative office of Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, one of his defense attorneys.

“My name is finally cleared after 3 long years of unfair treatment by the DGIF,” he said in a statement on Friday. “I believe they are trying to change how they operate. The mistakes and misdeeds of a few should not define an entire agency, but I believe having integrity is crucial as opposed to just trying to meet another department goal.”

Hall’s mother, Sallie, died of a heart attack in 2018, shortly before she was scheduled to give a deposition in a wrongful death civil suit filed against him and the operator of the jet ski.

“It has been difficult to move forward with this hanging over my head, and I want to move on,” he said.

His father, Richard, said in a statement, “The primary goal of our effort has always been to clear Drew’s name and to do everything possible to prevent anything like this from ever happening to another citizen. True accountability will serve as the greatest deterrent to unlawful actions and unfair treatment of citizens in the future.”

Ryan Brown, a lawyer who became director of the game department last summer, pledged Friday to carry out a number of reforms at the agency as part of the settlement to improve operations and oversight of its law enforcement division.

“It’s a pretty comprehensive approach to improve the agency for our dedicated staff, for the public and for our constituents,” Brown said.

The new director took the job shortly after the Richmond Times-Dispatch published a story last July about the fatal accident and the game department’s withholding of evidence from defense lawyers that suggested the driver of the jet ski, who was not charged, may have been at fault in the fatal accident.

On Friday, Brown did not discuss the department’s handling of the case, but in remarks to the agency’s board of directors in October, he said, “The public also deserves our very best and I will tell you that in the case of the Hall case, becoming as familiar as I am with it, the DGIF corporately owed the individuals and families involved in that case better than what we delivered.”

“We owe the constituents who pay our salaries better and we as an agency for sure owe better to our own dedicated officers who do such a great job for us,” he said. “I never want to see another case like the Hall case, and I mean that.”

The game department’s budget comes from license fees, not general tax funds.

The case began as crowds gathered on the eve of July 4 for a fireworks celebration around the Anthony Ford Boat Ramp on Smith Mountain Lake. Hall, then 20, accompanied by Capers Zentmeyer, 22, was piloting a power boat as it left the cove and gained speed heading to the main channel of the lake.

The jet ski, driven by Rentz Brandt of Danville, collided with the boat, and Ayers, of Pfafftown, N.C., was fatally injured. Hall jumped into the lake fully clothed in an effort to rescue them both and bring them to shore, but Ayers could not be revived. Brandt was taken to a hospital with minor injuries.

Hall was charged with reckless boating, underage alcohol consumption and possession of fake IDs. He acknowledged drinking one beer with dinner two hours earlier. Pittsylvania Judge George A. Jones Jr. dismissed the alcohol charge under the first offense statute and the fake ID charge because it cited the wrong law.

However, Hall’s family and defense lawyers raised concerns during trial in 2017 about evidence withheld by game police that suggested the jet ski was approaching the boat at a 45-degree angle and swerved at the last moment. The evidence included written notes by one conservation officer and a recording, discovered during trial, of a hospital interview with Brandt, who said that when he saw the boat to his right, “like I tried to swerve and I hit it.”

“We said, ‘Holy cow! That makes a big difference!” Stanley said in an interview last year. “At the moment of impact, the vessels had changed positions.”

Ayers suffered multiple injuries to her right side as the back of the swerving jet ski collided with the boat.

Hall was convicted of a reduced misdemeanor charge, which Jones dismissed during a hearing on March 18, 2019, in which Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Haskins acknowledged that evidence had been withheld that should have been shared with the defense.

“It chafes my rear end [that] this evidence was withheld,” Haskins told the judge.

Game department officials said officers did not withhold evidence intentionally, but acknowledged the need for uniform policies, training and staffing across the state, including the creation of a major incident investigation team.

“Drew’s good name and integrity finally have been fully restored,” said Stanley, who worked on Hall’s criminal and civil cases but sat out negotiations on payments because he’s an elected state official. “First with his eventual vindication in a criminal court of law, and now with a far-reaching settlement with DGIF that will bring much needed criminal justice reforms to the daily law enforcement operations of the agency, this resolution will ensure that the injustice suffered by Drew will not happen to someone else in the future.”

Along with the settlement, the department:

  • created a law enforcement committee of its governing board, which held its first meeting in January;
  • established a “major boating incident investigation” team;
  • adopted uniform policies to become accredited by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services;
  • agreed to provide constitutional training, including the requirement that officers provide potentially exculpatory evidence to defense attorneys under the doctrine established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brady v. Maryland in 1963;
  • and improved its process for responding to requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

“The best thing that has happened at DGIF is a new administration that is willing to admit the mistakes of its predecessors and take definitive action to overhaul the agency,” Richard Hall said. “It is my personal hope DGIF will continue to evolve with more transparency, improved adherence to their own policies, better investigations and increased accountability.”

UPDATE: Police identify wanted man who was fatally shot by a Henrico officer Thursday night

A man wanted in connection with a recent Richmond carjacking was stabbing a woman Thursday night when he was fatally shot by Henrico County police, authorities said Friday.

Ajay Kamil Ayseli, 31, died after he was taken to VCU Medical Center following the shooting, police said.

Around 8:45 p.m. Thursday, officers from Richmond and Henrico responded to the 2300 block of Strangford Court, in the Tuckahoe area of western Henrico, to serve Ayseli with an outstanding arrest warrant related to a Feb. 25 carjacking. In a release on Friday, Henrico police said the officers first made contact with Ayseli in the driveway of a home, into which he fled.

Police said that as officers approached the house, they saw Ayseli stabbing a woman with a knife. Police said the Henrico officer closest to the attacker fired his service weapon, striking Ayseli.

The woman, who police said was stabbed multiple times, was taken to the hospital. She is reportedly in critical, but stable, condition.

A 3-year-old in the home during the incident was not harmed, police said, adding that the child is being cared for by family in the Richmond area.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with all those involved in this traumatic event,” said Henrico Chief Humberto I. Cardounel Jr. in a statement Friday afternoon. “This incident underscores the difficult decisions law enforcement officers are faced with on a daily basis. Sworn to serve and protect, our officers are trained to use deadly force as an absolute last resort. However, initial details in this incident suggest the actions of the officers saved the life of the female victim being violently attacked — had they not acted more swiftly, more lives may have been tragically lost.”

At the time of the shooting, Ayseli was wanted in a carjacking reported in South Richmond last month. At around 6:10 p.m. Feb. 25 in the first block of Labrook Concourse, a woman reported Ayseli had stolen her vehicle. The woman who reported the car stolen knew Ayseli, Richmond police said. She is not the same woman stabbed in Thursday’s incident, police confirmed Friday.

Ayseli has a criminal history of burglary and grand larceny, which landed him in prison for more than two years, according to online court records. He also has a few driving infractions, including driving under the influence, that carried a few months of jail time.

It’s unclear what connection he had to the woman who was stabbed, or the child.

The injured woman and the officer who shot Ayseli will not be identified at this time, Henrico police said, citing policy. The police division never identified the officers involved in the county’s last on-duty shooting, which resulted in the death of a mentally ill woman shot in her Short Pump home last year.

“I continue to have complete faith in the men and women sworn to protect our community and have every confidence in the teams tasked with objectively investigating this incident,” Cardounel said.

The division’s officer-involved investigations team investigates any discharge of a firearm by one of its officers, and any incident resulting in injury or death to any person is investigated by the criminal investigations unit. Both teams are working on this case, Cardounel said, and will provide those findings to Henrico Commonwealth’s Attorney Shannon Taylor.