By Dennis Hetzel, Executive Director

Dennis Hetzel

Hetzel

The question was this: Can Hancock County commissioners go into executive session “to discuss economic development matters”?

Our answer to the Findlay Courier was yes, sort of, but look closely at what their motion actually stated. Don’t let local officials abuse the newest exemption to Ohio’s open meetings laws. Although the courts haven’t ruled yet on this new language, there is no doubt the intent of the law was to require much more specificity than such vague statements.

In the spring of 2013, the State Senate added an amendment to the huge budget bill that gave local governmental bodies something they had been seeking for many years: an open-ended exception to allow elected officials to meet secretly to discuss pretty much anything regarding economic development.

This was “mission creep” from JobsOhio, the quasi-private economic development agency that enjoys broad exceptions to Ohio’s laws on open meetings and records. The local government lobbyists reasoned that if heightened secrecy helped JobsOhio to foster economic development, it should be that way for them, too.

Our arguments to yank the amendment went nowhere.   As the cliché goes, politics is the art of the possible.  The sponsor, Sen. Bill Sietz, R-Cincinnati, did agree to significantly limit the new exception. We also gained an open meeting exemption that requires a unanimous vote by those in attendance.

They must state on the record in the open meeting that it is necessary for a specific purpose, referring directly to the provisions of the law. Examples:

“Move to go into executive session for the purposes of discussing the specific business strategy of an applicant for economic development assistance under Chapter XXX of Ohio Revised Code.”

“Move to go into executive session for the purposes of discussing negotiations with other political subdivisions for economic development assistance under the provisions of Chapter XXX of Ohio Revised Code.”

Here is the actual new language from the code:

121.22(G) …. the members of a public body may hold an executive session .. for the sole purpose of the consideration of any of the following matters ……..

(8) To consider confidential information related to the marketing plans, specific business strategy, production techniques, trade secrets, or personal financial statements of an applicant for economic development assistance, or to negotiations with other political subdivisions respecting requests for economic development assistance, provided that both of the following conditions apply:

(1) The information is directly related to a request for economic development assistance that is to be provided or administered under any provision of Chapter 715., 725., 1724., or 1728. or sections 701.07, 3735.67 to 3735.70, 5709.40 to 5709.43, 5709.61 to 5709.69, 5709.73 to 5709.75, or 5709.77 to 5709.81 of the Revised Code, or that involves public infrastructure improvements or the extension of utility services that are directly related to an economic development project.

(2) A unanimous quorum of the public body determines, by a roll call vote, that the executive session is necessary to protect the interests of the applicant or the possible investment or expenditure of public funds to be made in connection with the economic development project.

If a public body holds an executive session to consider any of the matters listed in divisions (G)(2) to (8) of this section, the motion and vote to hold that executive session shall state which one or more of the approved matters listed in those divisions are to be considered at the executive session.

As always, contact me if you have legal hotline questions. We’re here to help any way that we can.

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