Senator Norment vs. the people

Published 9:42 pm Thursday, February 11, 2016

It has been well documented that Virginia Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment (R-James City) holds a special contempt for members of the press.

Last month he unceremoniously kicked members of the press off the floor of the Senate chamber. Norment buried his plans for the press — which included the removal of their work spaces on the floor and relegating reporters to the corners of the chamber gallery — under a pile of procedural guidelines that went unnoticed by many of his colleagues until the opening day of this year’s legislative session.

Norment’s move served to create distance and animosity between elected officials and the press, the eyes and ears of the voters who sent these politicians to Richmond to do the people’s work. We suspect such was his intent, because when asked about his decision to bar the press from the Senate floor, he reportedly responded by saying, “You’ll get used to this refrain during the session, ‘I have no comment.’”

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He may not have had comment, but withering criticism from the press, Virginia citizens, fellow lawmakers and members of his own party caused Norment to, at least partially, reverse course, allowing reporters back on the floor, but providing only cramped work stations that would remind you of your third-grade desk.

Meanwhile, Norment has submitted a budget amendment that would provide the majority leader with an additional $16,200 for office expenses, including furnishings and equipment.

Norment’s behavior is clearly an attempt to restrict press access to details and information about how the state Senate operates. This alone is significant cause for concern by those who prefer to know what their government is up to.

Worse than that, however, is that Norment and colleagues who share his disdain for open government have delivered a slap to the face of all Virginians. Norment has loudly and clearly delivered the message that the decisions and actions of elected officials are of no concern to the voters who elected them in the first place.

Norment’s attack on a Virginian’s right to know has not stopped with attempts to keep reporters at bay. He has also joined with a small band of legislators who have renewed their attacks on public notices published in newspapers.

Public notices, also known as legal notices, are pieces of information that are legally required to be published in newspapers as the best means of keeping the public abreast of certain matters. Foreclosures, trustee sales and public hearings are all examples of information that governments and individuals are required to publicly disclose in newspapers.

Norment and others have argued that newspapers fight to keep public notices because they are paid to publish them. There is some truth to that. However, newspapers are the primary clearinghouses for information of importance to the communities they serve. Newspapers are the watchdog keeping an eye on government officials who desire to do the people’s work out of earshot of the people whose work they are doing.

Newspapers, whether printed on paper or published online, are the eyes and ears of the people. Newspapers, and the press in general, irritate politicians like Tommy Norment because they ask him to divulge things he’d rather not. As a result, Norment and his cronies are attempting to control not only what you know, but also how you know it.

Norment’s attempt to isolate and marginalize members of the press was met with significant pushback. His attempts to keep you in the dark should result in outrage.