Good for Gov. Joe Manchin, who has agreed to hold his next big meeting on the South Charleston Tech Park issue in public. This after a variety of media folks, led by the Daily Mail’s George Hohmann, protested the closed-door meeting the governor previously organized.
But you know, if Gov. Manchin really wanted his administration to operate with some transparency — and believed the public has a right to know about how economic development efforts work and don’t work — he would urge lawmakers to repeal the Freedom of Information Act exemption that shrouds such matters in secrecy.
Currently, W.Va. Code 5B-2-1 says:
Any documentary material, data or other writing made or received by the West Virginia development office or other public body, whose primary responsibility is economic development, for the purpose of furnishing assistance to a new or existing business shall be exempt from the provisions of article one, chapter twenty-nine-b of this code: Provided, That any agreement entered into or signed by the development office or public body which obligates public funds shall be subject to inspection and copying pursuant to the provisions of said article as of the date the agreement is entered into, signed or otherwise made public.
The Legislature passed this language in 1997 at the behest of then-Gov. Cecil Underwood, following The Charleston Gazette’s successful lawsuit to force into the public information about potential deals the state was making with developers of a pulp mill proposed for Mason County.
Supporters of this broad FOIA loophole pointed to the section that mandates public disclosure of any final deals with developers that obligate state funds for economic incentives. Of course, that argument ignores the fact that letting the public know about the deals after their sealed prohibits the public from being able to oppose any deals they didn’t like.
Perhaps more importantly, the language in this FOIA exemption can easily be used by state officials to keep the public from checking up on whether their economic development agencies are doing a very good job of improving the state’s job picture and economy in general.
We’ll wait for word that Gov. Manchin is going to tackle opening up the state’s economic development efforts — for good and for bad — to more public scrutiny.