Facing a buzzsaw of media opposition and some negative comments from legislators, Rep. Delia Haak (R-Centerton) pulled down her HB 1280 to allow governing bodies to meet in secret, with an attorney, to discuss economic development projects.
Best comment I heard was from veteran reporter Wesley Brown who said he’d been unable to get an answer to his question about projects killed by the law requirement for open meetings.
Local officials may enter confidentiality agreements with potential developers — North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith did, for example, in the development of a major Amazon distribution center. The problem with the final executive sessions for such meetings is that they become done deals before the public knows anything about the projects. Good examples are failed Chinese developments in Arkadelphia and Forrest City. That Arkadelphia project came with a significant commitment of local money in work that now is looking for a new customer since a pulp mill evaporated.
One argument in favor of secrecy is that information helps competitors in other states. Some examples would be welcome. Years of corporate welfare have proven that incentives are not decisive in location decisions — resources, workforce, location and transportation options are far more important.
Haak said she’d work on amendments.
Governments — school boards, city councils, quorum courts — want to work in secret. Always. And scheme with attorneys in secret. The public does not benefit by being denied a seat at the table before decisions are made. The nature of a business, its environmental impact, its cost, the ability to clawback public money, favoritism in contracting — these are all factors about which the public should have a voice before it is too late.