Local organizations across the state that work on recruiting businesses to their respective areas might start becoming less secretive. A recent court ruling from Brevard County might pave the way for more sunshine on the state’s many economic development groups.
There is a state law that allows economic development agencies to shield for up to two years any information about a company that might be relocating to or expanding in their area.
Barbara Peterson with Florida’s First Amendment Foundation said in effect this exemption has allowed most of these groups, which often spend public funds, to operate with limited public oversight.
“These economic development agencies are handing our money,” she said. “They are handing out cash incentives. They are handing out tax incentives. They are handing out land. So they are giving away public assets and the company gets to remain anonymous and its plans get to stay confidential.”
Peterson said this exemption has been used pretty broadly, too. In practice, it has shielded the public from meetings and information about past investments. This means it’s really hard to tell what these groups are spending money on and whether they are actually creating jobs.
That’s why courts are tackling this issue. Recently, Brevard County’s economic development agency was ordered to comply with the state’s open government laws. In response, Sarasota’s agency is considering settling a five year legal battle with a government watchdog.
Peterson said this may start changing how these groups operate in the state, but she said it won’t be sweeping change.
“I think it helps significantly is the short answer. But, I think we will still have problems on a case by case basis,” Peterson said.
State lawmakers passed legislation about two years ago that subjected the state’s economic development agency to more transparency.