[ OUR OPINION ]
Let sunshine keep
shining on councils
OPPONENTS of open government are citing a hypothetical violation of the state's Sunshine Law as justification for allowing county councils to conduct the people's business behind closed doors. The move to exempt the councils from anti-secrecy laws appears instead to be in retaliation for a complaint by this newspaper about a violation that did occur.
THE ISSUEThe Legislature is considering a bill to exempt county councils from the state's open-meetings law.
The state Legislature has exempted itself from open-meetings laws since their enactment. County council members may be envious and those who have served in the Legislature may be nostalgic.
New Honolulu Councilman and former state Rep. Rod Tam testified that the Sunshine Law makes it "difficult for Council members to attend social functions, cultural events or other non-legislative functions without being in violation of the Sunshine Law." Sen. Cal Kawamoto, the bill's sponsor, cited the same "social" restrictions supposedly caused by the law.
They refer to a provision that forbids more than two council members from privately discussing council business among themselves. It is aimed at keeping council members from meeting privately to conduct council business. We know of no instance where county council members attending social events have been accused of violating the anti-secrecy law.
A Star-Bulletin reporter did complain in 2000 after he saw then-City Council Chairman Jon Yoshimura and other Council members discussing a resolution privately in the chambers during a recess. The state Office of Information Practices ruled last year that the Council members' private discussion, while a violation, was not intentional. It had begun between Yoshimura and another Council member, and other members joined in, making it illegal.
Yoshimura noted that "pods" of state legislators can be seen discussing bills in private because of their exemption from the Sunshine Law. "Why is that OK, and what makes it wrong when Council members or commissioners or board members do it?" he asked.
Well, it is not OK for members of the Legislature to be conducting private meetings, whether behind closed doors or in "pods" along the Capitol railing. Unfortunately, legislators have been unwilling to subject themselves to the same public scrutiny they have bestowed on county councils. If Tam misses the coziness of the Legislature, he should resign from the Council and try next year to return to his former House seat.
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Lowering fireworks fee
would repeat madness
A state fireworks permit fee aimed at controlling noise and smoke has been successful, to the benefit of Hawaii residents' health and safety. A statewide ban on fireworks would end the risk caused by dangerous celebrations. Some state legislators instead propose to reduce the permit fee and thus increase the noise, smoke and risk. Their proposal, approved this week by the House, is irresponsible and should be rejected by the Senate.
THE ISSUEThe state House has approved a bill that would lower the fee for buying firecrackers.
The Legislature adopted the $25 fee for the purchase of a string of 5,000 firecrackers two years ago as a strategy for discouraging the use of fireworks, and it has been effective. Honolulu's air-monitoring station this past New Year's Day showed a smoke density about half that of the same day last year. Only one of the five stations where measurements were taken indicated smokier air. Although three structures caught fire from pyrotechnics, fireworks- related losses were down sharply from the 2002 celebrations.
"Last New Year's Eve was great, and I think it was a direct result of having a meaningful cost placed on the permit," said state Rep. Cynthia Thielen. She and fellow Republican Galen Fox, the House minority leader, cast the only votes against the measure as it passed the House.
In reporting the bill to the House floor, Judiciary Chairman Eric G. Hamakawa asserted that the $25 fee "is extraordinarily high and only serves to punish fireworks users." The fee is not excessive when considering the health and safety risks for nonparticipating victims and the fee's purpose of discouraging the activity. Polls indicate only one-third of residents take part in fireworks.
The fee seems to have resulted in a reduction of firecracker use, which should allow police and fire officials to concentrate on catching users of illegal rockets and thunderous M-80s, simulating mortar rounds. Many residents with asthma and other health problems are placed at risk by the fireworks.
The fee amount was a compromise in the 2000 Legislature between fireworks enthusiasts and those who wanted to ban fireworks altogether. Among those who supported a ban was then-Gov. Ben Cayetano, left hoarse in the aftermath of firecracker smoke from the 1999 New Year's festivities he described as "utter madness." The state hardly needs an escalation of noise and smoke as progress toward sanity is being achieved.
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