COLUMBUS — Local cities and townships can now meet secretly behind closed doors to discuss economic development deals with businesses under a provision tucked into the just-signed state budget.
Drillers can keep buried details on exactly what they’re pumping under the ground at high pressure to shatter the shale that traps oil and natural gas under a law Ohio lawmakers passed last year.
And State Auditor Dave Yost’s prying eyes won’t be allowed anywhere near details on how the private, nonprofit JobsOhio is using state liquor profits to spur economic development deals under a law recently rushed into place.
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Bill by bill, the Ohio General Assembly has over the years slowly whittled away at state public records and open meetings law with even more proposals waiting in the wings.
“For all the talk about government doing less, no matter which political party is in charge, government gets involved in more activities,” said Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association.
“So many issues that come up today, whenever lawmakers say they want to do this new thing, the question is what does that mean for public records and public meetings?
“Often there’s the knee-jerk reaction that we need to restrict this because it makes government’s job easier in the short run but not necessarily in the long run,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any big concentrated agenda on anybody’s part to create more secrecy, but these issues keep popping up.”
A provision added to the budget by the Senate adds deal-making with businesses over economic development incentives to the list of reasons that local government bodies can meet in executive session away from public eyes.
Sen. Bill Seitz (R., Cincinnati), who worked to get the executive session amendment in the budget, said local governments had been talking to him about it for about 13 years. He said it was a practical alternative to, for example, a township trustee having to negotiate economic deals in isolation without risking a possible violation of open meetings law by keeping his colleagues in the loop.
“We all have interest in the economy,” he said. “Nobody is saying the deal itself is a secret. They still have to vote in open session in an open meeting.”
Following talks with Mr. Hetzel, Mr. Seitz narrowed the new exception to the open meetings law at the last minute to limit it to talks about “confidential” information like business strategy, trade secrets, finances, marketing plans, or the status of talks with other local governments. The revised provision also requires a unanimous vote of the government body to go into executive session.
Given that Gov. John Kasich had already defended the ability of JobsOhio to privately negotiate economic deals, opponents of this provision held out little hope he would veto what could be seen as a miniversion of the same thing.
“Even if we accept the governor’s argument that JobsOhio is special and deserves special treatment, now we have mission creep,” Mr. Hetzel said.
“The open meetings law has become the bogeyman for the inability of some local governments to attack because they don’t have as much economic development as they’d like.
“We don’t see any evidence from anyone showing a correlation between greater secrecy and greater economic development,” he said.
But Mr. Seitz said this provision was not patterned after JobsOhio but rather after provisions in state law affecting the Ohio Controlling Board and other state entities that predate JobsOhio.
Just a quarter of the way through the current two-year session, bills pending in the General Assembly suggest the whittling may not be over.
A pair of bills pending in the House and Senate would eliminate entirely a journalist’s right to look at records as to who holds permits to carry concealed handguns, a right already limited by a prohibition against that journalist taking any notes about or making copies of what he sees.
The Senate added the language of another bill to the budget that would have allowed joint county commissioner meetings to discuss ditch improvements via video or teleconference instead of in person.
It didn’t survive the conference committee that hammered out the final spending plan.
Still, Mr. Hetzel noted that there are also some promising bills pending. Rep. Mike Dovilla (R., Berea) has teamed with Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel to propose an online public database tracking government spending.
Sen. Shannon Jones (R., Springboro) has introduced a bill to require local government bodies to be more specific in citing their reasons for going into executive session.
Mr. Seitz said discussion around public records evolves with technology as more and more records go up on the Internet.
“I don’t think there is any higher level of such bills that I’ve seen in the last 13 years,” Mr. Seitz said. “There will always be three or four introduced in every session. ... There’s always something, but generally the grand history is that many are proposed but few are enacted.
“Every one that is enacted is subject to great wailing and gnashing of teeth by the newspapers, but they tend to look at the glass being half empty instead of half full,” Mr. Seitz said.
Contact Jim Provance at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 614-221-0496.