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Published: Tuesday, 5/1/2012

Keep records public


GOV. John Kasich's administration says it will amend the law that created Ohio's economic development agency so that it won't allow other state agencies to hide their activities. That fix would not be needed if JobsOhio hadn't been permitted to wrap itself in secrecy.

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Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine raised a red flag about the law that created the state's private economic-development experiment. The law says: "Records created or received by JobsOhio are not public records ... regardless of who may have custody of the records."

That phrase is repeated in a bill that passed the state House last week. Based on this wording, Mr. DeWine said, a document created by a state agency would become secret once it was sent to Jobs-Ohio for any reason. So JobsOhio could become a place to hide public records that someone in state government wanted to keep from voters and taxpayers.

Mr. Kasich insists JobsOhio must work privately because businesses won't come to Ohio without assurance that their secrets will be kept. Such confidentiality makes Ohio development officials more nimble in competing for new jobs, the governor says. These are curious claims.

Ohio is the nation's seventh most populous state. It has the country's eighth- largest economy. The state's jobless rate in March was 7.5 percent, below the national average of 8.2 percent, and lower than rates in 22 other states.

So far this year, Ohio ranks among the top 10 states in job creation, although as the Cleveland Plain Dealer notes, Ohio ranks much lower -- 22nd in 2011 -- in terms of jobs created as a percentage of the state's population.

Still, these numbers hardly suggest that businesses are avoiding Ohio because of the state's historic commitment to open records. It is troubling that public-records concerns did not come up when the House debated the current bill. Ohio voters expect elected officials to safeguard public knowledge of what their government is doing.

But it's more troubling that the governor's administration doesn't see the problem, and is willing to change the wording only to provide the attorney general's office with "comfort."

Transparency is preferable to secrecy in state government. When the public exercises a vigorous right to know, that deters abuses of power. Access to public records should be broad and not subject to politicians' interpretation.

The remedy in this case was obvious: Make exemptions from public-records law unambiguous and narrowly defined. Mr. DeWine and Governor Kasich say they have done that by limiting the exemption to records "created by" JobsOhio.

But a broader solution also suggests itself: Require the state's economic-development gurus and the companies and industries they hope to keep, grow, or lure to Ohio to do public business in the sunlight of public scrutiny.

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