This week was “Sunshine Week” in Ohio, that time of year when state officials remind the populace of the importance of public records and open meetings and journalists remind the same of the continued erosion of such public access.
To celebrate, a spokesman for the state Development Services Agency refused to answer questions from a group of reporters concerning public funding provided to JobsOhio, saying instead that reporters should “submit” their questions to him individually and wait for a response.
The hallway incident came a few days after that same agency took hours to produce an audit of the private nonprofit about two weeks after its legal counsel had already determined the document should be open to public scrutiny.
Both did little to assuage concerns voiced over the past two weeks about JobsOhio and the $5 million-plus in public money it received last year.
That’s not to say that the nonprofit, the Development Services Agency or anyone in Gov. John Kasich’s administration has done anything illegal, despite allusions by certain Statehouse Democrats, who sense potential scandal and are circling like sharks around bloody fish bait.
Letter of the law
My guess is that Kasich & Co. have followed the letter of the law, as OK’d by lawmakers (including some Democrats now criticizing the secrecy), and JobsOhio is doing exactly what it was designed to do — head the state’s economic development efforts while keeping fragile business negotiations out of the public view.
That’s no reason for the response offered in recent weeks by the Development Services Agency.
Earlier this month, on a Friday afternoon, reporters asked DSA for a copy of the private audit conducted on JobsOhio.
I was told that the request would have to be forwarded to the agency’s legal counsel for review and that copies would be released, potentially by the end of the day, to all requestors at the same time.
Normally, that would be an acceptable response. I don’t expect public agencies to drop everything they’re doing to respond to my inquiries. However, in this case, the audit documents already had been reviewed by DSA legal counsel and provided to other media a couple of weeks earlier.
The public information folks had the paperwork, complete with required redactions, but refused to release it upon request, instead saying they had to follow the proper procedures. (I should note that later in the day, I was able to obtain a copy of the document from state Auditor Dave Yost’s office about 10 minutes after asking for it.)
At best, that’s the type of bureaucratic, speed-of-statute nonsense that Kasich regularly rails against, via his Common Sense Initiative.
At worst, it’s a public agency thumbing its nose at reporters and pulling the oft-used political maneuver of waiting until after hours to release bad news.
Flash forward three days to the state Controlling Board meeting, where Chris Redfern, a state representative who is also chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, pulled all DSA-related items from the agenda to question the agency about JobsOhio’s use of public funding.
In the hallway afterward, a group of reporters attempted to ask the DSA spokesman and legislative liaison some questions.
Questions in advance
The former refused to answer the group, saying he would only work with each of us individually and that we needed to submit our questions in advance.
It was one of the biggest public information train wrecks that most of us have seen in our time covering the Statehouse and the worst thing an agency spokesman could have done, given the ongoing JobsOhio brouhaha.
A few days later, Kasich announced he was replacing DSA Director and cabinet member Christiane Schmenk. His spokesman said the move was in the works for months, though he also declined comment on whether Schmenk was asked to resign.
All of this creates a perception of the Kasich administration and JobsOhio that is not helpful and shifts attention away from the thousands of jobs and billions in capital investment the nonprofit has spearheaded and onto speculation and innuendo.
Marc Kovac is The Vindicator’s Statehouse correspondent. Email him at email@example.com or on Twitter at OhioCapitalBlog.