Sneak attack on Ohioans’ right to know must be stopped now

There they go again. Ohio’s state lawmakers have conspired anew to launch a dangerous and sneaky attack on the public’s right to know.

Tucked away deep within the 5,000-plus pages of the $61.7 billion, two-year spending blueprint that the state Senate approved last week lies a seemingly minor footnote with a decidedly major hit on Ohioans who value openness and transparency in government.

In the rush this month to complete and approve the state’s budget for 2014 and 2015, Republican leaders ever so quietly and slyly added an 11th-hour amendment. That amendment defiles both the letter and the spirit of Ohio’s landmark law guaranteeing open public meetings of those charged with overseeing the public purse strings.

The amendment covers a wide array of topics on economic development — a high priority issue in communities large and small throughout the state. It would allow a city council or board of township trustees to meet secretly to discuss tax-increment financing, tax abatements, community reinvestment areas, joint economic development districts and just about anything else that could be explained away in some way, shape or form as economic development.

The amendment would put the kibosh on government transparency over a critically important public policy issue. Clearly, John Q. and Jane Q. Public deserve better. They deserve the right to be fully informed on the scope and details of development projects, particularly when they involve their hard-earned tax dollars.

As such, and for a variety of other reasons, Ohio senators and representatives must kill that unreasonable and unwarranted provision before it reaches the full General Assembly for a vote before the budget deadline of June 30.

Fallacious defense

Some argue the amendment puts local communities in line with state policy. True, the new quasi-public JobsOhio agency overseeing economic development in the state clearly has sidestepped best practices in government openness. But that’s no excuse to piggyback the perversion into a much larger arena.

Also, as the Ohio Newspaper Association argues in its recent legislative alert, the amendment goes far beyond the authority state agencies have to consider matters in seclusion. Secret deliberations are permitted in five clearly defined areas. No credible reasons surface to expand our state government’s sphere of secrecy into the expansive realm of economic development.

Even if there were logical arguments to defend the amendment — which we strongly believe there are not — the very process of inserting the provision onto the high-speed track of the budget bill is misguided. Any proposal that tinkers with the public’s rightful access to their government merits full and robust debate in the form of a separate piece of legislation, not a passing glance with ominous implications in a voluminous bill on dollars and cents.

Viable alternative

If anything, legislators should examine ways to expand government openness, particularly at a time when numerous examples of secret surveillance in the federal government are casting a chilling pall over the cherished principle of a free and unfettered democracy. That’s why legislators should let loose of the secrecy amendment and grasp onto Senate Bill 93, sponsored by State Rep. Shannon Jones. Her legislation would require additional information to justify secret executive sessions and would expand the fees for violations of the state’s Open Meetings Act.

Of course, given the history over the past three decades of repeated efforts to dilute the state’s laws on open meetings and open records, passage of SB 93 may be too much to hope for in the waning days of this spring’s legislative season.

At the very least, however, we are counting on our state’s responsible representatives and senators to strike the misplaced and insidious amendment from the budget bill. In so doing, they’ll also strike a blow for keeping public officials honest, making government more efficient and ensuring a check against abuses of power.

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