Public deserves open meetings
Written by JAN LARSON McLAUGHLIN, Sentinel-Tribune Editor   
Wednesday, 12 June 2013 08:59
Ask any kids and they will tell you - scary stuff happens in the dark.
As adults, we get over that irrational fear, but we still realize that the cover of darkness often allows wrongs to be committed that would not be attempted in the light of day.
Current open meetings law in Ohio requires that governmental bodies conduct their business in the bright sunshine of public participation.
But tucked away in the 5,371-page state budget bill is an amendment that shields governmental bodies from that uncomfortable glare and allows them to meet behind closed doors when discussing nearly any economic development issue. The change would allow townships, municipalities and counties to even discuss tax breaks for prospective businesses without input from the public - the people footing the bill of such tax abatements.
While open meetings law in Ohio already permits governmental bodies to go into executive session to discuss such items as real estate transactions, it is very specific and limited in the reasons public bodies can retreat behind closed doors.
The proposed change in the law came at the request of the Ohio Municipal League and the Ohio Township Association, whose members said the current sunshine law requirements were hampering their economic development efforts.
But no evidence has been presented backing up the claim that the public's right to know is hindering a community's right to grow, according to Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association.
"While there is plenty of evidence of what can happen when there is too much secrecy in government, no evidence has been presented that there is any need for this exemption," Hetzel said.
Hetzel suspects the change requested by local government officials was spurred by the state sponsored secrecy of the JobsOhio program. The "mission creep" is disturbing, especially since the work of the JobsOhio agency, which was established in law as a private entity, is not comparable to the responsibilities of local governmental bodies, he said.
Open negotiations with prospective businesses may be awkward for local elected officials. But closed negotiations - while they may be more comfortable - are just wrong.
The municipal and township leaders seeking the change claim that other states benefit from allowing private meetings between governmental bodies and businesses looking for locations to set up shop. But unemployment numbers don't seem to back this up. Indiana, which allows such secret meetings, has a jobless rate of 8.4 percent, compared to Ohio's at 7 percent.
Open meetings law did not discourage CSX Transportation from recently building a massive rail hub in Henry Township, where the township trustees discussed proposals during public meetings.
"All that was open meetings," said Henry Township Trustee John Stewart.
Did those public discussions nearly drive CSX away?
"No, not at all," Stewart said. "We don't have any secrets. It's got to be an open door policy."
After all, the public is bound to be impacted. "It's how we spend your tax money," Stewart said.
The proposed change in open meetings law does not sit well with either of Wood County's state legislators.
State Senator Randy Gardner, R-Bowling Green, said the amendment needs more scrutiny.
"There may be some adjustments in the law that can be justified in the name of being more competitive for jobs, but not the current sweeping language in the bill," Gardner said. "The public not only has the right to know what a local government or state government decides. The public deserves to know to a meaningful extent how the decision is being made while it is being made.
"If not, they have no reasonable opportunity to participate in the process, to at least attempt to influence the decision," Gardner said.
State Rep. Tim Brown, R-Bowling Green, also questioned the need for changing the public's right to be aware.
"It certainly wasn't a system broken in its use in Wood County," said Brown, who served as a county commissioner for 15 years.
He also agreed the amendment deserved its own hearing. "This should not be slipped into a larger piece of legislation."
The debate should get plenty of sunshine by state legislators - just like the economic development discussions at the grassroots level.
 

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