A proposed 11th-hour amendment to the state budget bill would create a troubling exemption from Ohio’s open-meetings law that, as introduced, would offer little or no opportunity for debate. Lawmakers should pull this amendment from the budget.
By removing public scrutiny, the amendment would open the door to potential misuse of taxpayers’ money for local economic development projects. That change is especially risky now, as the same omnibus bill authorizes a grab bag of new tax incentives that include local property-tax breaks.
Even proponents of these preferences should want such a sweeping change in transparency to undergo a robust debate. That can’t happen with the plan for open-meeting exemptions buried in a 4,000-page bill that has to be completed by the end of this month.
The proposed exemption is far too broad. It would allow officials to discuss, in closed session, all “details and terms relative to any application for an economic development project.” Local governments could discuss in secret practically any development matter.
Local governments in Ohio do not need more ways to operate in the dark. State law already gives them broad authority to convene closed meetings to discuss real estate transactions and “matters that federal law, federal rules, or state statutes require the public body to keep confidential.”
Not surprisingly, local governments, which like to work in secret, favor the change. They argue, in effect, that they need the same authority to keep information secret as the state wields.
In fact, the amendment would give local governments greater authority to meet privately. The authority of state agencies for secret deliberation is confined to a handful of specific areas that protect the applicant or possible investment of public funds. The vote to go into executive session must be unanimous.
Nor should local governments compare themselves to JobsOhio, a private economic development entity. The responsibilities of JobsOhio — and the laws under which it operates — are different from those of local government’s.
There is no evidence that local governments need this change to remain competitive. On the other hand, it’s easy to imagine how tax funds, without public scrutiny, could be misused to grant special favors such as tax credits.
Ohioans should remember that open-meetings laws were not created to protect newspapers or the media. They were enacted to protect the public by giving taxpayers the right to know how their government works and spends their money.
The amendment would eviscerate that right to a dangerous degree — and do so without sufficient debate. Scrap it.