Friday, July 29, 2005

City Council moves
to close door on

The City Council is talking about closing the doors even tighter on leadership and reorganization debates.

City & County of Honolulu Yesterday, councilmembers, in a preliminary vote, approved a rule change that would not allow them to discuss and vote on committee assignments or other Council reorganizations in public.

The rule change is a direct response to findings by the state Office of Information Practices, which determined the Council violated the state's open-meeting law by discussing the committee changes in a series of private conversations and then voting for these changes in a public meeting.

Councilmembers cited several reasons for their position, including an opinion that the public does not care how committee members are selected by their peers.

"I don't want the public to think ... that somehow this panel is trying to duck out from under the law because we have a difference of opinion with OIP," Councilman Nestor Garcia said.

Councilwoman Barbara Marshall said the public does not care.

"First of all, I don't think anybody's going to challenge (us) on this. As you can see, there's absolutely no one in this room," Marshall said of the committee meeting room. "I've not gotten a single e-mail or phone call on this subject, and it's been in the newspaper and it's been on television, so the people don't really care about our committees."

But OIP Director Les Kondo said the rule change will set a dangerous precedent.

While the law allows two councilmembers to talk about Council business in private, it does not allow those councilmembers to then hold subsequent discussions with other members on the same business.

If councilmembers interpret that they are allowed to conduct a succession of one-on-one discussions on committee assignments, they could also apply that interpretation to other Council business, essentially falling into "rubber stamp" legislation and with the bulk of the discussions hidden from the public, he said.

"There would be a lot of business the public wouldn't be privy to," Kondo said.

Yesterday, the Council, meeting as the Executive Matters Committee, approved a resolution that would change Council rules to allow reorganization through an internal memo by the Council chairman.

City attorneys advised the Council that to address OIP concerns they could organize committee assignments internally -- and not through the public-meeting process -- since committees are governed by internal rules and not by statute or the City Charter, the city's governing document.

Some councilmembers said they would rather keep the current system of approving assignments at a public meeting, but their hands are tied because of what two members described as "preposterous" and "ridiculous" interpretations of OIP.

Some on the Council advocated taking OIP to court or going to the Legislature next year to seek an exemption from the Sunshine Law similar to what state lawmakers currently have.

Kondo said County Councils are among the more important boards in the state, and if they are allowed to discuss business in private, other boards would follow suit.

"The harm is that the public won't be privy to that discussion," Kondo said. "To me, that discussion the public is entitled to hear."

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