Monday, March 14, 2005

Isle Sunshine Law
gains acceptance

Many state workers remain
unsure about the requirements
of open-door meetings

Leslie Kondo received several strange phone calls two years ago when he first took over the state Office of Information Practices.

Elected officials wanted to know if it was legal for them to play golf or eat lunch with each other. He also got calls from government board members asking whether they were required to post a meeting agenda for a Christmas party.

"I always hesitate and think, 'Is this a joke? Is this one of my friends calling me to see if I know what's going on?'" Kondo said.

It wasn't a joke, but a startling example of the widespread misunderstanding about Hawaii's Sunshine Law, which has been administered by the Office of Information Practices since 1998.

"There seems to be a lack of understanding or misunderstanding about the statute's requirements," said Kondo, director of the Office of Information Practices.

The Sunshine Law is an open-meetings law that governs the manner in which all state and county boards must conduct their business. It is intended to open up the governmental process to public scrutiny while protecting the public's right to know and participate. Members of the Legislature are exempt from the law.

The Office of Information Practices has held informational workshops to educate agencies and board members about what is required under the Sunshine Law, such as:

» Discussions, deliberations and decisions must be conducted at a meeting.

» Every meeting must be open to the public unless a closed-door "executive session" is allowed.

» Boards must accept public testimony, provide notice of its meeting and what it intends to consider, and keep written minutes of meetings.

While the Sunshine Law prohibits board or Council members from discussing official business outside a meeting, on the phone or by e-mail, they are still allowed to have lunch and talk about anything else.

"It protects against the back-room deals," Kondo said. "Three or four City Council members cannot be talking in their office about this issue that's before the Council and decide how to vote and come out and basically rubber-stamp the deal. They can't do it."

Generally, all state and county boards, commissions, authorities, task forces and committees that have supervision, control, jurisdiction or advisory power over a specific matter are subject to the Sunshine Law.

Some of the panels include the University of Hawaii Board of Regents, County Councils, Board of Land and Natural Resources, Board of Education, neighborhood boards, liquor commissions and police commissions.

The most common error Kondo finds is agendas lacking sufficient details. Some red flags in agendas are items listed as "other business," "legislation," "rule amendment," "new business" or "old business" -- all without any additional description.

"That seems to be something we're trying to address with all the boards and commissions right now," he said. "Generally, 99 percent of the time, people are trying to do the right thing, they just don't know what the statute requires. The vast majority of the time, it's an unintentional violation."

University of Hawaii journalism professor Beverly Keever said agendas now give citizens a better idea of why they should attend a meeting, but some boards are not as open as they should be.

"The Board of Regents still uses acronyms written by insiders for insiders so the public is unaware of important topics being discussed," she said.

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