Business Incentives and Sunshine

Business Incentives and Sunshine

An editorial published by Florida News Press today (Thursday, June 19, 2014) offers an interesting response to a perennial problem for local elected officials. The problem involves economic development incentives that cities and counties employ to attract job-generating businesses and business expansions to their communities.

Understandably, businesses exploring possible relocations or expansions are jittery about having that information disclosed prematurely. Likewise, local economic development agencies want as much maneuvering room as possible when negotiating on the range of issues associated with enticing a company. Having all of that appear on the front page of a newspaper or as a major story on the web probably has a chilling effect on this kind of economic development effort, especially in comparison to such negotiations in states with less aggressive public meetings and public records laws (and most states have less aggressive laws on these subjects).

On the other hand, it is hard to imagine a more uncomfortable position for an elected official to occupy than the one in which he/she is asked to approve hundreds of thousands or even a few million dollars in incentives when he/she does not know the name of the company nor have access to a reasonable amount of detail about the promises the company has made and what they might mean for their community. It is very hard to exercise one’s fiduciary responsibilities when such information is not available.

In response to this clearly undesirable reality, the Florida News Press has suggested that the state Legislature modify the law so that a single member of the relevant board (city council, county commission) can sit in on the negotiations. This would ensure that an elected member of the relevant board that must approve the incentives has been privy to the kind of information that, arguably, all board members ought to have. The expectation, it would seem, is that the rest of the members of the council or commission would be able to rely upon their colleague’s assessment of the proposed deal, knowing that their colleague would bring an elected official’s perspective to that assessment. They still would be free to disagree, of course, but I think it is unarguably true that there would be value in adding an elected official’s way of viewing the matter to the overall discussion.

That said, my guess is that a change in the law involves an interesting complication.

Under Florida’s public meeting laws, if a single member of the board (city council, county commission) is delegated the task of representing the board on another committee, therefore serving officially as the board’s representative, that single member becomes a “sunshine” committee in his/her own right. Any meeting of the committee to which he/she has been assigned must be made public because he/she is there.

So much for any confidentiality.

To fix this, if I understand the law, will require the Legislature to exempt this kind of committee work from that broad demand for sunshine.

That, I think, would be a very good start.

For more than 20 years (including my time in elected office), I have been a critic of Florida’s obsession with opening meetings and open records. My objections are not driven by any argument with the broad underlying purpose of ensuring that the public has meaningful access to the decision making process of public agencies. It’s the public’s money, being used for purposes that are supposed to reflect the public’s priorities. I get that we have a right to know how those decisions are made.

But transparency or openness or “sunshine” has its limitations, too. For generous or fearful reasons, as well as mean-spirited ones, people do not always communicate with identical content and clarity when their statements are going to be public record and when their statements are going to be private. This is why, for example, many surveys that ask individuals (customers, employees, clients) to rate others are conducted either anonymously or with guarantees of confidentiality.

Elected officials are people, too. Yes, they chose to expose themselves to the “sunshine” (though, in fairness, many do not realize just how blinding that sunshine is when they run for the first time). No, they didn’t have to do it.

But if we want talented, dedicated citizens to take up the mantle of local elected office, we need to be careful not to make the mantle too heavy to bear.

Opening up the economic incentive process to a local elected official, and providing the necessary “shadow” in the Sunshine Law, makes great sense. And perhaps, having considered the sense this reform makes, the Legislature will be open to other discussions about ensuring the public’s business remains accessible to the public while ensuring that the public’s business is conducted in the best way possible.