OIP says City Council
broke Sunshine Law
The City Council violated the state's open-meeting law by discussing its recent reorganization and committee assignments in a series of private conversations, the Office of Information Practices said.
"Clearly it defeats the purpose of what the statute is intended to protect, which is allowing the public to participate in the meetings," said OIP Director Les Kondo, whose agency oversees compliance with the law.
But councilmembers disagreed yesterday with Kondo's interpretation of what is commonly called the Sunshine Law.
"I am not saying that the Honolulu City Council should be ignoring the Sunshine Law. I think too much goes on behind closed doors as it is," said Councilman Charles Djou, an attorney who is now chairman of the Executive Matters Committee, which will take up the issue next week.
"I don't think what the Council is doing is wrong," he said.
In a July 12 letter to Council Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz, OIP outlined three concerns the agency has with events that led up to the reorganization of Council standing committees earlier this month.
Kondo said the most serious transgression was a series of private conversations councilmen held one-on-one. These private conversations led to a reshuffle of committee assignments. The new assignments were drafted into a resolution approved July 13.
"It flies in the face of the letter, intent and spirit of the law," Kondo said.
"That's incorrect," Dela Cruz responded. "I totally disagree."
OIP's letter said councilmembers can discuss the selection of Council officers outside a meeting, but no more than four members can participate in that meeting. OIP also said a change in the law now allows two councilmembers to privately discuss Council business, but those two members may not then discuss the same business with others outside a meeting.
"Accordingly, if you specifically discussed the reorganization with more than three other councilmembers outside of a meeting, your discussions with those members should have occurred in a meeting open to the public and not through a series of private conversations," the OIP letter said.
A violation of the Sunshine Law can void a Council's decision.
"It is a little scary. The remedy is that it could void action by the City Council, which means some of what we did in the past may now be in jeopardy," Djou said.
Djou and Dela Cruz said they believe OIP is misinterpreting the law.
Charles Djou: He says public policy is not affected by internal organization of the Council
"I do believe one councilmember can talk to another as long as not more than two of us are talking," Djou said.
He also said he does not believe that the internal organization of the Council affects public policy.
Djou said as a result of OIP's letter, city attorneys are looking at possibly having the Council reorganize through internal communications -- as it was done years ago -- instead of through the public-meeting process since Council reorganization is set by rule and not by law.
"We can do it by memo," Djou said, which he said he does not want to do because "that means the public will get zero."
Dela Cruz said the Council's reorganization this year was more open to the public than in the past.
"Transparency and accountability are a priority for the Council," he said.
In the three previous reorganizations during his term, Dela Cruz said the Council has followed the same process, which included public notice of meetings, a public hearing and public testimony, and it had not heard from the OIP.
The letter also said the resolution that details how the Council's standing committees would be reorganized appears to violate the state's open-meeting law because councilmembers were essentially "polled" by each other on their preliminary positions on the resolution.
"The statute clearly does not allow councilmembers to decide Council business, even if the decision is preliminary and subject to change, outside of a properly noticed meeting," the letter says.
Djou said the co-introducing of a resolution does not indicate which way a councilmember will vote, because votes change often.