Dear Gov. Kasich,
I am writing you today on behalf of the Ohio Newspaper Association (ONA) and our more than 250 daily and weekly newspapers in Ohio to express our concern with a provision in House Bill 59 that would grant expansive, new secrecy to local governments in Ohio. This Senate-added language gives local government bodies broad new powers to go into executive session to discuss economic development projects. The ONA requests that you line-item veto this expansion of government secrecy as the need for this provision is unsubstantiated, unnecessary and problematic on multiple levels.
The organizations pursuing this new exemption have provided no evidence that existing open meetings exemptions are inadequate to address the concerns of private sector entities and negotiations. Under current law, a public body can already go into executive session to discuss real estate transactions, share 'trade secrets', review development plans for a port authority, and to share any information that state or federal law requires be kept confidential. There are additional exemptions for court actions. These existing exemptions provide an appropriate balance between a business's need for discretion and the public's right to know what their government is doing. As a practical matter, it is not difficult for any business person to talk with a staff member or an individual elected official of a local government and maintain secrecy if necessary as proposals develop.
Proponents have argued that our neighboring states have similar exemptions, and they say it is paramount, especially for those border counties, cities, and townships, that Ohio remains competitive on this front. It is an unproven assumption that there should be a correlation between local government secrecy and job growth. No such correlation exists. Indeed, Indiana allows greater secrecy for such discussions, but lags Ohio in key economic indicators. We have the lowest unemployment rate of any neighboring state, except West Virginia, which does not have an open meetings exemption such as the one proposed in Ohio.
Your administration has made economic development and job creation its top priority and, as you often note, Ohio is leading the nation in job growth. Our unemployment rate has steadily declined since you took office. While ONA has had concerns over transparency aspects of JobsOhio, there is no question that Ohio is making substantial progress on the economic development front.. One of the key features of the JobsOhio network is that you have targeted industry outreach that is tailored to each region of the network. The local JobsOhio affiliates are empowered to work with both public and private sector partners to achieve results. With the increased secrecy in HB 59, local governments can engage in more negotiations that have potential to create situations out of alignment with your administration's job creation programs.
The new exemption is also problematic as it surely will increase the competition between local government entities for business expansion and relocation projects.
Clearly, successful economic development projects bring new jobs to the state; however, it does not benefit the state as a whole to make it easier for businesses to simply move from one local jurisdiction to another. ONA asks you to consider that if these discussions are held in secret, we will see more instances of local governments simply luring businesses away from each other with tax incentives that actually reduce overall revenue. Local government organizations have characterized this provision as a tool that was not added to the toolbox, referencing some of the shared service and reform efforts contained in your previous operating budget. We disagree with the characterization that increased secrecy will lead to savings and operational efficiency.
Finally, this language was added at the last minute in the Senate, well past the point of public comment or testimony an ironic detail when we are talking about a major new exemption to Ohio's Sunshine Laws. If this is really a necessity for local governments, then the language should be debated separately from the budget where all interested parties can have a thorough dialogue about open meetings in the state of Ohio. We recognize and thank Senator Seitz, the sponsor of this provision, for making a substantial effort to address our concerns and offer an amendment in conference committee that was a considerable improvement. However, the problems outlined above remain, and the timing of this process further underscores the argument that more discussion and debate is needed on the issue of open meetings in Ohio.
We are all aware of the prices that can be paid with excessive government secrecy, and proponents of this language have not made the case of why additional secrecy is needed. Any broadening of exemptions should be considered in context with other issues with open meetings, such as Ohio's unusually narrow definition. The secrecy requirements of JobsOhio, state agencies and local governmental should not be presumptively identical.
For the reasons stated above, we respectfully urge you to veto language found in section 121.22(G)(8) of House Bill 59. Thank you for your consideration of this request.
Dennis R. Hetzel
The Ohio Newspaper Association