A bill to allow Utah's local governments and other agencies to meet behind closed doors at any time to discuss economic development has been sent to the floor of the House.
If passed, the bill would keep the public from learning about tactics their cities and counties use to lure businesses, even if those tactics involve tax money. Current state law requires such meetings to be open.Rep. Robert Slack, R-Washington, said he is sponsoring HB247 because he believes publicity can destroy deals with businesses, especially in the early stages of negotiation.
The former mayor of Washington, Washington County, Slack said his city lost "two or three proj-ects" because of early publicity. However, he did not provide specific examples.
"I would not want to expand greatly the purpose of a closed meeting," Slack said. "This does not say they can close a meeting after the public has been informed of the project."
But the bill, approved 5-3 Wednesday by the House State and Local Affairs Committee, is seen by opponents as a step toward removing government from the people. It faces stiff opposition from the League of Women Voters, Utah Common Cause and the Utah chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
"I don't think efficiency is the cornerstone of our government," said Kate Lahey, attorney representing the Society of Professional Journalists. "An efficient government is a totalitarian government."
Lahey noted the law does not define economic development. She said cities and counties could use the law as an excuse to bar the public from attending any of their deliberations.
"What you're saying is, `Let's do this in secret. Let's not tell the public about it until we think the time's right,' " she said. "The public needs to know if you're going to add incentives with the public's tax money."
Lawmakers opposed to the bill said it would keep the public out of negotiations involving many important, potentially volatile subjects.
"One of the great things we're looking forward to is the Winter Olympics," said Rep. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake. "Do we want the public to participate? I believe the public has a right to participate in economic development."
Slack gave lawmakers a list of 40 city governments that favor the bill. However, the list immediately was challenged by Sandy Mayor Steve Newton, who said his name was added to the list without his knowledge.
"I want my name removed," Newton said, noting he is currently accusing a water conservancy district of holding illegally closed meetings.
Supporters said the bill would help Gov. Norm Bangerter's effort to enhance the state's economic development. However, Bangerter recently said he sees no need for the bill.
"It would appear we have the authorization under the current law to close meetings to discuss strategy," he said. However, Bangerter defended the Legislature's right to close its caucuses.
Rep. Dan Price, R-Vernal, said he believes governments will not use the bill as an excuse to trick the public.
"I think all this is meaning is that we sit in there (in private) and plan," he said. "We're not pulling the wool over any eyes."
The state's current law allows governments to exclude the public when they discuss the character or competence of individuals; when they hold strategy sessions relating to collective bargaining, litigation or the purchase of property; when they discuss the deployment of security measures; and when they investigate alleged criminal misconduct.