Sen. Garrett Stands Up for the Public

When the Virginia General Assembly convened its 2016 session last Wednesday, the news media and reporters who cover the state’s legislature were in for a rude awakening.

For more than four decades, the clerk of the Senate has set up tables, just below the rostrum, for the press corps. The work space was spacious and afforded reporters almost instant access to senators and the ability to keep up with floor amendments to legislation in real time.

But last Wednesday, all that disappeared. Reporters were banned from the Senate floor and exiled to a far corner of the balconey ringing the chamber. There weren’t enough seats for the entire contingent nor enough electrical outlets for laptops, and acoustics are far from perfect.

Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment Jr., a James City County Republican, had altered the operating rules for the 2016 session, ordering the news media off the floor. The Senate had adopted the rules on a straight, party-line vote of 21-19.

But the outcry from the Virginia Press Association, the Virginia Capitol Correspondents Association, the editorial pages of the state’s newspapers and open government groups was swift and ferocious.

And into the breach stepped a lone Republican senator who has grown increasingly worried about the majority leader’s concentration of power in his office: Sen. Tom Garrett of Buckingham County.

Garrett, who represents a portion of the City of Lynchburg and is currently in his second term, vociferously opposed Norment last month when the majority leader tried to assume the additional title of chairman of the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee, one of the two most powerful panels in the Assembly. It would be too power concentrated in the hands of one legislator, Garrett argued. His stand forced Norment to accept a co-chairmanship with Republican Emmett Hanger.

Now, Garrett is working to overturn Norment’s banishment of the media. He’s introduced a resolution, still being discussed by his colleagues, that would do just that.

The major hurdle Garrett faces is the two-thirds majority needed to amend the rules. “If folks have to go on the record, I can’t fathom that we would have trouble getting two-thirds of the votes in favor of transparency and access for the media,” he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “It’s not a partisan issue. It’s about accountability to the voters. We work for them, not the other way around.”

We strongly support Sen. Garrett’s efforts to overturn this ill-informed rule change. As he bluntly put it, this isn’t a partisan issuse, it’s not liberal vs. conservative or Democrat vs. Republican. It’s a matter of recognizing the fact that elected officials are servants of the people and answer to them.

The News & Advance is strongly committed to covering the Assembly, basing a reporter in Richmond for the entire session. Our mission is to inform our readers and cover issues important to Central Virginia; ultimately our access is your access. Call your senators and stress that fact to each and every one of them.

It’s time for Garrett’s colleagues to join with him and strike a blow for open government.