Ruling prohibits private,
1-on-1 Council business
A state judge agrees with media outlets that any discussions should be in public
Honolulu City Council members cannot hold secret discussions in one-on-one meetings before coming together for a public vote on an issue, Circuit Judge Eden Elizabeth Hifo said yesterday in a declaratory ruling.
Jeff Portnoy, who represented eight journalism and open-government organizations in a lawsuit against the City Council, said the decision clears up any ambiguity with the state's so-called "Sunshine Law," making it "absolutely clear" that "the practice of deciding things in secret" is illegal. The suit stems from a July Council vote on a reorganization plan.
"The underlying decision is clear: that serious, one-on-one communication on matters of substance are not permitted," Portnoy said. "All of the deliberations and votes are to be done in public."
But City Councilman Charles Djou, whose district includes Waikiki and Ala Moana, said he disagrees with the ruling. "The intent of the Sunshine Law was to prevent behind-closed-door meetings," he said. "I don't think it was meant to ban Council members ever talking to each other."
Council Chair Donovan Dela Cruz noted that Hifo pointed out there are exceptions to bans on serial, one-on-one communications, including when Council members are discussing a budget bill or scheduling a meeting. "We all believe in open government," Dela Cruz said.
"We also owe it our constituencies to balance and ensure government efficiency and effectiveness."
City Corporation Counsel Carrie Okinaga said the full Council has not yet discussed the ruling, but added, "In all likelihood we will be recommending an appeal."
The ruling does not overturn the Council reorganization that spurred the suit.
And it does not change how the City Council handles reorganizations in the future, because members voted on July 29 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 are not subject to the Sunshine Law.
Djou said that Hifo should not have ruled on the suit "because there was no case in controversy," with the reorganizations no longer subject to the open-meetings law. Portnoy, though, argued the ruling was necessary to clear up any doubt on the issue.
According to the suit filed against the city, seven of the Council's nine members agreed in their private talks to vote in favor of the reorganization. The Council reorganization was adopted July 13. Council members have acknowledged they discussed leadership and committee reassignments in one-on-one talks before a public meeting to vote on the issue.
But they have also said talking about agenda items in one-on-one conversations is common and allowed.
The groups that sued the city were the Society of Professional Journalists' Hawaii and University of Hawaii chapters, 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.
The state Office of Information Practices also ruled that the City Council broke the law.
In an Aug. 4 opinion, OIP Director Leslie Kondo said the Council, with its reorganization vote, "simply 'rubber-stamped' a decision that had obviously been made prior to the meeting."