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A public records flap — again



Published: Sat, September 21, 2013 @ 12:00 a.m.

COLUMBUS

Not too long after I started covering the Statehouse six years ago, I began keeping tabs on Ohio’s Tax Credit Authority.

Each month, I look over the panel’s agenda, searching for companies of local interest. Wherever one from Youngstown or Defiance or Cambridge or Wooster or other communities is up for a tax break, I try to attend.

It’s always a challenge.

During the public portion of the sessions, the authority members and representatives of companies and the communities where they are considering expansions talk around some conference tables.

There’s no microphone or speaker system, so it’s tough for people with hearing issues (like me) to hear everything that’s being said.

But you can talk to the participants in the hallway afterward and ask for project scopes from the state’s Development Services Agency. The latter are one-page summaries that lay out the facts about expansion plans and tax breaks that are granted.

Most of the time, as part of the release, reporters are able to get an estimate from development officials about how much awarded credits would save recipient companies on their tax bills.

But sometime in the not-too-distant past, the Development Services Agency decided to stop providing that information. Asked about the change, a spokesman told the Gongwer News Services something about trade secrets.

A couple of days later, Gov. John Kasich was asked during a question-and-answer session with reporters about it. He responded that, though he was not aware of the change, it didn’t sound like something he would support.

“That doesn’t set well with me when I hear that,” he said, adding, “The idea that ... somehow this is a trade secret, I don’t know what their argument is on that. If it’s been historically open, we want things to be open.”

Damage control

A few hours later, the Development Services Agency was on the phone with reporters doing damage control.

They weren’t really trying to block the release of information, they said.

The “trade secret” comment was misunderstood, they said.

The estimates don’t accurately represent the real tax savings and are problematic when reported, they said.

And reporters could do the math themselves, they said.

But in the end, they agreed to keep providing them to the public.

That decision was the right one, particularly at a time when so much attention is focused on JobsOhio and perceptions of secrecy.

“Gov. Kasich deserves credit for reacting promptly and appropriately to rescind this policy change,” Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, said the day all of this came down. “First of all, citizens simply should have access to information about potential tax credits to businesses. Secondly, stretching the trade-secret exception to apply to such information would be a bad precedent unlikely to survive legal challenges.”

End of story? Not quite. Kasich used his Q&A to chastise reporters for their portrayal of the private nonprofit created under his administration to spearhead the state’s economic development efforts.

“Sometimes, there’s a misunderstanding among some of you about how you create jobs,” Kasich said, adding, “These media reports. I hear media reports all the time that turn out not to be true. I try to tell people I believe about half of what I see and little of what I read.”

Marc Kovac is The Vindicator’s Statehouse correspondent. Email him at mkovac@dixcom.com.


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