Ohio provides too many ways for officials to keep the public from knowing what their government is up to.
The state’s public records and open meetings laws, once among the best in the country, have been eroded in recent years. There are so many bills that it’s hard to keep up with the changes. Often, even elected officials don’t know all the rules.
But it didn’t take the Hancock County Commissioners long to make use of the latest add-on to the open meetings law.
On Tuesday, the commissioners voted to go into executive session to discuss “economic development” with another public body. Legislators created that new loophole when they added the economic development exemption to the state budget last June, before the issue could be vetted.
It wasn’t surprising that Gov. John Kasich didn’t give it a line-item veto in the budget bill. JobsOhio, the state’s private economic development arm created at the urging of Kasich, has similar privacy protections.
While the commissioners were within the rules when they closed their doors, we hope the practice will be used sparingly, if at all, and remind them, once again, that they work for the public. Even though they can conduct much business in private, it doesn’t mean they have to, or should.
The open meetings law was already adequate to address concerns of private-sector entities and negotiations.
A public body can go into executive session to discuss certain court matters, real estate transactions, share sensitive trade secrets, review development plans for a port authority, or to share information that state or federal law requires to be kept confidential.
The problem with the new exemption, of course, is that economic development is such a broad term. The language allows a public body to meet privately if its vote to do so is unanimous and the information to be discussed relates directly to economic development assistance, involves public infrastructure improvements or the extension of utility services that are directly related to an economic development project.
In other words, a decision-making body could call just about anything economic development if it wanted to keep discussions under wraps.
But, as Dennis Hetzel, director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, says, every time the door closes to a meeting it creates an opportunity for mischief.
The concern should be that more meetings, not less, will be held behind closed doors in the future under the guise of economic development. While a public body still has to vote or take action in open session, by then much of the discussion may have already taken place and decisions involving public funds already made.
Monday marks the start of “Sunshine Week,” an annual nationwide awareness effort to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.
We urge the public to join the conversation before even more of its business is conducted behind closed doors.
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