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Secrecy is not good policy for County Commissioners

May 07, 2012

While perusing a list of projects and events supported by the county’s hotel-motel tax revenue, a Herald-Mail reporter noticed a line item for $100,000 that turned out to be an incentive, or potential incentive, to lure a new company to Washington County.

A county official confirmed that the County Commissioners voted on the payment in closed session last year, agreeing to a nondisclosure clause that would keep the name of the company secret.

Later, County Administrator Greg Murray explained that the payment didn’t have to be publicly explained because the money had technically not been spent.

That seems to us to be an awfully fine line to walk, in order to keep the expenditure of tax dollars under wraps.

Naturally, there are several legitimate reasons — competition, legal issues, land negotiations, etc. — why a company might want to keep its name out of the papers until a deal is finalized. And certainly that is the right of any company that is spending its own money on the project.

But when a company asks us for tax dollars, the game changes. At that point, it becomes the right of the people to know how that money will be spent, and for whom.

More than likely, we would support a $100,000 expense if it brings a significant number of jobs to the community, and probably a lot of citizens would as well. But when the commissioners hide the details and name of the project, it is impossible for the community to make an informed decision.

We understand that it puts the commissioners in a tight spot, if a company demands confidentially and asks for a handout at the same time. But the law is clear, and any reputable company is going to know the law; tax money cannot be spent in secret.

Differentiating between when the money was approved and when the check cleared is a bit too cute for our taste.

The payment was agreed to more than a year ago, and was authorized to be paid to the third party that was negotiating the deal.

We hope this ends well, and that an announcement is right around the corner. If a large company moves in and employs a significant number of people, even a somewhat sketchy process is likely to be forgiven.

But eyebrows already have been raised over county deals involving Yale Drive and curbside recycling, deals that some members of the community have, with reason, felt were not entirely above board.

Add this economic-development deal to the mix, and an uncomfortable pattern begins to emerge. We would urge the commissioners to reassess the way they do business and to remember that in government, the easiest or most convenient way isn’t always the right way.

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