Fix is ‘solution without a problem’
Summer may almost be here, but some Ohio lawmakers are doing their best to avoid the “sunshine” when it comes to open government.
Last week the Ohio Senate Finance Committee slipped an amendment into the budget bill that would create a massive new exemption when it comes to the state’s open meetings laws, commonly called the “Sunshine Laws.”
Even without considering the actual language of what these lawmakers submitted, it is clear that the entire approach is flawed because there is virtually no opportunity for debate or analysis of an amendment that is jammed into a more than 4,000-page budget bill that has to be voted on by June 30.
Over the years the state’s Sunshine Laws have been watered down significantly and now includes dozens of exemptions, but this one is large enough that you could drive a Mack truck through it.
The exemption essentially says that local governmental bodies can go into closed session to discuss any aspect of an economic development matter. Having seen firsthand how local public bodies abuse the current system, there is no doubt that this will be used to shut out the public far more than is necessary and prevent vital open discussion about how public money should be spent.
“While there is plenty of evidence of what can happen when there is too much secrecy in government, no evidence has been presented that there is any need for this exemption,” Dennis R. Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, wrote in a letter to its members. “It may be a solution in search of a problem as well as a solution that will create bigger problems.”
Hetzel is absolutely correct.
The state’s existing laws already allow executive sessions for a variety of 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.”
Economic development officials and elected officials are notoriously tight-lipped — something that is rarely as necessary as they like to contend — when it comes to discussing projects publicly and often find ways around the laws as they are right now.
Transparency is vital to good government and taxpayers have a right to be a part of the conversation before the deal is done. This is another step in the wrong direction.
At one time Ohio’s open meetings laws were among the best in the entire nation, often used as a model for other states to emulate.
That is no longer the case as these laws that protect the public’s interests have continued to be eroded.
The state Legislature has the chance to stop this backward slide by essentially keeping the curtains open and letting the sunshine pour into government on all issues.
Michael Caldwell is publisher of The Tribune. To reach him, call (740) 532-1445 ext. 24 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeCaldwell_IT.