Sunshine Law suit hits Council
Certain private talks by council members violated the law, say media and civil groups
Eight journalism and open-government organizations filed a lawsuit yesterday alleging that the Honolulu City Council violated Hawaii's open-meetings law when its members discussed a reorganization plan privately before coming together for a public vote.
The Council reorganization resolution was adopted July 13. Council members have said they discussed leadership and committee reassignments in one-on-one talks before their public meeting.
Seven of the Council's nine members agreed in their private talks to vote in favor of the reorganization, the suit says.
"A series of secret one-on-one meetings that reaches a rolling quorum violates the intent and spirit of Hawaii's open-meetings law," said Jeff Portnoy, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs.
In addition to voiding the resolution, the lawsuit seeks a judgment that the council members' private conversations violated the so-called Sunshine Law. It also asks that the use of private, one-on-one conversations to reach a consensus among council members on any matter be declared a violation of the open-meetings law.
"We hope this suit will signal to government that this type of back-room vote-gathering will not be tolerated," said Stirling Morita, a Star-Bulletin editor and Freedom of Information Act chairman for the Hawaii chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. "Our fear is that this will become a widespread practice, shutting out the public from discussions and decisions on issues."
Other groups joining SPJ-Hawaii in filing the lawsuit are the University of Hawaii chapter of the SPJ, the Right to Know Committee, the League of Women Voters of Hawaii, Citizen Voice, the Big Island Press Club, the Hawaii Political Reform Project and the Honolulu Community Media Council.
In an Aug. 4 opinion, the state Office of Information Practices said the Council broke the law. "In reorganizing its committees, the council members privately discussed council business and thereafter approved the resolution without any substantive discussion," OIP Director Leslie Kondo wrote. "The Council thus simply 'rubber-stamped' a decision that had obviously been made prior to the meeting."
Council members argue that talking about agenda items in one-on-one conversations is permissible and common.
"It's clear that HRS (Hawaii Revised Statutes) does allow members to have conversations with another council member," said City Council Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz, when reached by cell phone while traveling Sunday.
In a letter to Kondo prior to the OIP's opinion being issued in August, Dela Cruz said the Council's discussions were based on a city Office of Council Services memo, which said a series of conversations prior to a public meeting do not necessarily violate the Sunshine Law.
But Kondo said the memo did not apply to the Council.
Though the lawsuit could void the July resolution, members changed their rules so the Sunshine Law doesn't apply to reorganization discussions.
On July 29, council members voted to approve a rule change so that they would not be allowed to discuss and vote on committee assignments or other reorganizations in public. Instead, the reorganizations would be discussed in internal memos. That way, they will not be subject to the Sunshine Law.