Megan Ward: The senator behaved like a bully

Apr. 20, 2013 @ 02:23 PM

“I am the senator, you are the citizen. You need to be quiet.”
This quote has been written about, talked about and posted on Facebook all week.
I was in the room when this sentence was reported to have been uttered by Sen. Tommy Tucker, R-Union, after a Senate committee hearing Tuesday.
I drove to Raleigh that morning to stand against a bill, S.B. 287, that would take away public notices from newspapers.
These notices tell taxpayers what the government is doing. They let us know if a house is being foreclosed on in our neighborhood, that a nightclub wants to open up down the street, that someone who may owe you money has died or if construction is planned at a government building that your company could make a bid for.
The government lets the citizens know this information by putting it in newspapers because this is still the best way to reach the most people in a community.
But under S.B. 287, sponsored by our own Sen. Trudy Wade, R-Guilford, that information would be hidden away on government websites.
Full disclosure: Newspapers make money for publishing these public notices. We don’t make a lot of money from them at The High Point Enterprise but we make a profit. While it is no secret that newspapers have been hit hard and need all the dollars we can get, my concern is keeping what the government is doing in the light where everyone can see.
And that is in newspapers.
Think about it this way: If your dog was missing would you put a notice on a government website? No, you’d put it in the paper where the most people can see it.
But some lawmakers don’t want us to see what they are doing.
I spoke about this bill with Sen. Wade on Tuesday and told her the reasons it is bad for our community.
I told her that I requested the city of High Point’s website page views. Last month, the website averaged around about 3,650 page views a day. Good grief. We have that many by 9 a.m.
With our website page views, combined with our newspaper’s circulation, we estimate those legal notices can be read by more than 60,000 people in our community.
I also looked at what got the most clicks on www.high-point.net. One of the most viewed was the job posting page. That says something about what our priorities are in High Point. And perhaps what our lawmakers should be concentrating on instead of this silly bill.
Wade told me that this bill is about offering options. That the city of High Point could place the public notices in newspapers or post the public notices on the city’s website.
I haven’t checked with city leaders, but I bet I know which one they would choose. A good point that another editor added later was that if the city did continue to run those in the paper and we wrote a story that they didn’t like, they could stop running those in the paper.
Still, Wade was civil during our talk. We disagreed but there was no arguing, no angry words.
So, getting back to that Tucker outburst ...
For the hearing I sat in a windowless room with about 20 other newspaper editors and publishers.
The senators sat at a few tables in front of us, paper name tags in front of each one.
Tucker stood at the front of the room.
They quickly reviewed one bill, something about sidewalks in Chapel Hill, and they voted. Everyone on the committee voted with a clear and loud “aye.” No one opposed with a “nay.”
When they got to S.B. 287, a few senators on the right side of the room spoke out against it.
Wade again talked about the options thing.
Then some newspaper folks spoke to the committee. Editor Les High of the Whiteville paper made a good point about how his 80-something-year-old father reads the paper cover to cover and will never go to a government website in his life.
Then they voted.
Those in favor: “Aye,” came from the Trudy Wade side of the room.
Those opposed: “Nay,” came from the other side.
I couldn’t tell which side won. Could it be a tie? What happens then?
BAM!
Tucker slammed his gavel and declared the ayes had it.
Wait, what?
One of the senators asked for a roll call vote, to count the votes.
Tucker said no and ended the meeting.
Even a kid would have seen that wasn’t a fair vote.
And that’s what Tucker reminded me of, a kid who was going to get his way even if it meant taking his ball home.
I was talking with some of the other newspaper people and gathering my stuff when I heard yelling near the door.
I am a noisy reporter at heart so I rushed toward the commotion. I saw Tucker, his round face red, yelling at a newspaper publisher. I didn’t catch the “I am the senator,” comment.
And I didn’t hear what the publisher said to Tucker, but whatever it was it made him furious.
I was scrambling to get my iPhone video camera to work when I heard Tucker yell, “I am no Jim Black!” He yelled this a few times, pointing his finger and was led out the door.
He had a meltdown in a room full of journalists. And none of us got that on video.
But just like me, they came back to work and let their readers know what their government was up to.
Tucker’s unprofessional outburst got major attention from newspapers all over the state and country. Cartoons were published and floated around on Facebook.
But what was more surprising to me than a senator acting like a hothead, was the way that bill was voted on and passed through the committee.
It was a sham.
On Monday, the Senate will vote on it.
The North Carolina Press Association supports a bill, House Bill 723, that is more of a compromise but keeps those public records in the newspapers where they belong — where the public will see them.

mward@hpe.com | 888-3543