A new law passed as part of the state budget this week expands when elected officials in Ohio can meet out of the public eye.
Starting in October, local government boards such as county commissions and city councils will be allowed to discuss tax-funded economic development deals in private meetings, referred to as executive sessions.
The change was signed into law by Gov. John Kasich when he approved a two-year, $62 billion budget that funds state operations but that also includes dozens of new laws.
Organizations representing local governments support the change, saying it will give them more flexibility to negotiate sensitive business deals.
“They’ve been really challenged by not having the ability to go into executive session to talk about things that should be kept confidential,” said Kent Scarrett, a lobbyist for the Ohio Municipal League, which represents the state’s villages and cities.
Currently, a non-elected employee would handle the talks, or a board would designate one elected official as a point-person for negotiations, he said.
Advocates for government transparency say the change is just the latest example of government acting to keep the public in the dark.
“I think it’s the right of taxpayers to know how their government is operating and how their money is being spent,” said Gary Daniels, a lobbyist with the American Civil Liberties Union. “But in this case, it’s ‘we’re going to keep taxing you, and we’re glad to take your money, but we want to make sure you know as little as possible about what we’re doing.’”
Ohio’s open meetings law requires that nearly all deliberations involving a majority of the members of a public board be held in advertised public meetings and to make records showing what was discussed. They can only meet privately to discuss a certain list of topics, like employee reviews or land purchases.
This week’s change adds to that list specific kinds of development deals, such as grants and loans, as long as the board votes unanimously to go behind closed doors.
Ohio Sen. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, who inserted the change into the state budget, said it puts local governments under the same rules as state agencies.
“The thought is if it’s good enough for the State of Ohio… it ought to be good enough for our boards of township trustees, boards of county commissioners and local and village councils,” Seitz said.
Matt DeTemple, executive director of the Ohio Township Association, which also supports the change, said projects involving private companies can include sensitive business information.
“Obviously you’re going to act in public on it, but to the extent that you have businesses that might be involved, it just might help get the deal done if you can talk about preliminaries in executive session,” DeTemple said.
But Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, said there’s no evidence that existing transparency requirements made governments miss out on opportunities.
“The Open Meetings Act is a bogeyman for frustration that there isn’t more development going on in these townships and cities,” said Hetzel, who lobbied against the change. “So presumably, we should see a jobs boom if their hypothesis is correct, but I don’t see any evidence anywhere in the country that there’s a correlation between giving government greater secrecy and economic development.”
Most of the local government officials contacted for this story said they couldn’t think of a specific problem the change would fix.
Nathan Cahall, economic development director for Centerville, said he doesn’t think the change is necessary.
“I can see there being potential in how expansively the amendment is written, there may be jurisdictions that in the future utilize that exemption for purposes in which it wasn’t intended. But time will tell,” he said.
Mike Lang, a Butler Twp. trustee in Montgomery County, said he couldn’t think of a specific instance where having more privacy would have been helpful to get a deal done.
“If it is something we end up employing, we would want to be able to balance the needs of the private sector with public transparency,” Lang said.
Springfield Law Director Jerry Strozdas said he hadn’t yet studied the new law, but said the old one was just fine.
“I have not felt that our ability to do economic development deals has been unduly hampered under the existing law,” he said.
Dan Policastro, mayor of Mariemont, a village in Hamilton County, said he approached Seitz about changing the law last month.
Mariemont had been trying to negotiate a deal to help a nearby township implement a new tax. The village was trying to put together an offer on how to split the resulting new revenue with the township, which was also considering partnering with other local communities, but was hamstrung by transparency laws, he said.
“If we put a strategy together and it’s in front of the whole world, how do you negotiate when the other party knows your strategy?” Policastro said.
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