One bad apple?

In 1993, during a major national recession, Alabama officials announced they lured German carmaker Mercedes Benz to the state to build an assembly plant for its new sport utility vehicles. A smiling Gov. Jim Folsom wore a Mercedes button as he made the announcement.

Later, as Alabamians learned how the state had given away the farm to get the plant, Auburn University professor Wayne Flynt said, “It’s gone from euphoria to fright.”

Mercedes had played states off against each other, getting a huge package of goodies. Alabama officials had been unable to say no. They were so desperate for anything that would relieve a harsh recession that they accepted corporate welfare that in better times they would have rejected.

It became a national scandal. A Wisconsin newspaper called it “Getting the Benz.” The Associated Press reported that “few are familiar with the nuances of international banking and big-league industrial recruiting.”

Part of the problem was the secrecy. By not keeping the public informed, community groups could not participate in scrutinizing the deal. Public discussion was at a minimum. The public was presented with a fait accompli.

Reno is now saddled with an uncooked deal with Apple. It may turn out fine, but it may also blow up in the faces of the officials who were too anxious, too accommodating, too manipulative, too clever by half.

Secrecy was necessary, they tell us, because Apple insisted on it, and they might have taken their business elsewhere.

That’s entirely possible. Apple has previously threatened towns if it didn’t get its way. Steve Jobs appeared personally before the city council in Cupertino, Calif., to threaten to pull his operation out of town unless he got his way on a building project.

Nevada columnist Jon Ralston has written about the existing Apple office in Reno—created as a tax dodge—and of the corporation’s executives “who gaze longingly at Nevada, their salivary glands in overdrive, thinking how easy it is to plant a few employees here and then grow astronomical profits while providing not one scintilla of assistance to the state.”

But at least Apple has the excuse that it’s doing what a predatory corporate monolith is expected to do. Public officials, however, represent the public, not Apple.

As noted in our news section this week, Nevada law allows confidentiality in economic development negotiations if “proprietary information” might be threatened. But no one made money off knowing that a corporation in 1984 wanted to move to Nevada and that the corporation’s name was Citibank. Indeed, a whole special session of the Nevada Legislature was held to make changes in banking law demanded by Citibank while other states competed with Nevada amid wide publicity. Nevada still prevailed.

Members of the Washoe County Commission, Washoe School Board, and Reno City Council sold out the public, approving the Apple deal after less than 30 hours of study. Their staffs delivered a defenseless, uninformed public to Apple. The deal certainly appears to jam huge amounts of public giveaways into one end of the pipeline to produce a trickle of public benefits coming out the other end.

Officials like Gov. Sandoval and County Manager Katy Simon smugly said the information was there for the public if the public wanted it. It’s their job to make public informtion easy, not difficult, to find.

This community belongs to all of us, not just to officials. When government stops trusting the people, people stop trusting the government. Those officials better pray the Apple deal works, because they are on their own.