By DENISE GRANT
Hancock County commissioners went into a closed session Tuesday, citing a new state law that allows public bodies to discuss economic development behind closed doors.
The commissioners gave no reason for the closed session except that it was to discuss “economic development matters.”
It is likely that state law requires more disclosure, said Dennis Hetzel, director of the Ohio Newspaper Association.
The new law “was slipped into the budget (of all things) last spring,” Hetzel said. “We got it amended so it is more restrictive. For one thing, the vote (to go into closed session) has to be unanimous and the purposes more specific.
“If they just said ‘economic development matters,’ I don’t think that is good enough,” he said.
After The Courier protested to the commissioners and to the Hancock County Prosecutor’s Office, the prosecutor advised the commissioners of a need for further disclosure.
Later, the commissioners amended their motion to go into closed session, saying they were discussing another public body with questions about economic development.
Under the new law, public bodies may move into executive session “to consider confidential information related to marketing plans, specific business strategy, production techniques, trade secrets, or personal financial statements of an applicant for economic development assistance, or to negotiate with other political subdivisions respecting requests for economic development assistance.”
The information must be directly related to a request for economic development assistance, or involve public infrastructure improvements or the extension of utility services that are directly related to an economic development project.
The vote to go into executive session must be taken by roll call and be unanimous, according to the rules.
The vote to close Tuesday’s meeting was unanimous. A Courier reporter protested the closing at the meeting, unaware of the rule change.
Hetzel said the change has yet to be challenged in Ohio courts.
“This has been on the Municipal League and Townships Association’s wish list for years. Of course, they argue that economic development is a dog-eat-dog world today, and that some information is best discussed in private, but there is so much opportunity for mischief there,” Hetzel said.
Cindy Land, an assistant Hancock County prosecutor, said all executive sessions are necessary to protect privacy or interests.
“There is a need for information to be kept private, for example in a real estate purchase or union talks,” Land said.
She said there are limits.
“That’s our job, to make sure the commissioners understand what those limits are,” she said.
Separately Tuesday, the commissioners voted to award a $348,062 contract to Helms & Sons Excavating, Findlay, for extending and improving Distribution Drive.
On Monday, the state gave $100,000 to help pay for extending the road into the new Ohio Logistics Business Park, north of Hancock County 99 and east of Ball Metal and the CSX railroad tracks.
That $100,000 grant from JobsOhio, the state’s private economic development agency, was released Monday by the state Controlling Board. The state Transportation Department is proposing an additional $200,000 grant, but that money has not yet been released by the controlling board.
The commissioners have agreed to finance the balance of the infrastructure work through a tax increment financing plan. It is expected to take 10 years to pay off the nearly $2 million in debt.
A tax increment financing plan allows additional real estate tax revenue, created by new development in a specific area, to be diverted from public entities like schools and townships, and used to finance infrastructure improvements.
This plan is diverting taxes from the Van Buren School District and Allen Township.
Commissioner Phillip Riegle said the Distribution Drive contract was not related to discussions held earlier in the day during the executive session.