The Lima News
The Senate Finance Committee last week accepted a late-breaking amendment to the budget bill that would create a very troubling new exemption to Ohio’s open meetings law. We have concerns about both the language and the process being followed, as there is little or no opportunity to debate and discuss an amendment introduced in June as part of a 4,000-plus page budget bill that has to be completed by June 30.
The bill gives broad, sweeping powers to local governmental bodies to go into executive session to discuss the terms and other aspects of virtually any economic development matter. In essence, local governments are arguing that since more information is being allowed to be kept secret on the state level, the local governments should be able to do so as well.
This is clearly “mission creep” from the impact of JobsOhio. While reasonable people can disagree about the need for the level of secrecy at JobsOhio, the work of an agency clearly established in law as a private entity is not comparable to the responsibilities of local governmental bodies.
There also is plenty of evidence about things that can happen when there is too much secrecy in government; yet, there is no evidence that there is any need for this exemption. It appears to be a solution in search of a problem as well as a solution that will create bigger problems. Existing law already allows executive sessions for many reasons, including discussions of real estate transactions and the catch-all provision “to discuss matters that federal law, federal rules, or state statutes require the public body to keep confidential.”
The new language goes far beyond authority that state agencies have to consider these matters in secret. At the state level, the secret deliberation only can cover five specific areas with a purpose to either protect the interest of the applicant or the possible investment of public funds. The vote to go into executive session must be unanimous.
Meanwhile, the process of considering such an idea is flawed. Sweeping change related to the use and potential abuse of taxpayer funds should be considered in a separate bill or an appropriate pending bill related to open government. This gives all parties a real opportunity for discussion and debate.
We are urge Ohio Senate President Keith Faber to make sure this ill-advised amendment is pulled from the budget — either in the Senate or in the upcoming Conference Committee before it gets to Gov. John Kasich.