Don't meddle with public access to meetings
The Legislature is being asked to create a five-member commission to oversee the state Office of Information Practices.
COUNTY Council chairmen are asking the state Legislature to undermine the limited authority of the agency that tries to assure public access to government meetings, in retaliation for a recent court ruling
that demanded such transparency. Supporters of the legislation are depicting the agency's director as some sort of sunshine czar with final say over such issues. That is a false assertion and the measure should be rejected.
Chairmen of the four County Councils are asking legislators to create a five-member commission to oversee the Office of Information Practices. The commission would hire its executive director from a list of people nominated by state judicial council and be able to fire the director at any time. The office now is a function of the office of the governor, who has unfettered authority to name its director.
Honolulu's City Council agreed in private talks last summer to discuss reorganizations of the Council by internal memo. The Office of Information Practices' executive director, Les Kondo, ruled that the conversations leading to the new policy violated a law against such one-on-one talks on an issue before the open-to-the-public vote.
Council Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz complained that some of the director's rulings are "extreme." He added, "It's just one individual that interprets the law versus a group of people. And there's no one to appeal to."
Hogwash. The office is only advisory, and a government agency can ignore its opinions at the risk of being sued. As a preface to the measure states, "Enforcement lies with the attorney general and the courts, as well as citizen suits."
Eight journalism and open-government groups filed such a lawsuit last summer against the City Council for its use of private conversations. State Circuit Judge Eden Elizabeth Hifo ruled last Thursday that Council members may not hold secret discussions on an issue prior to a public vote.
City Corporation Counsel Carrie Okinaga said afterward, "In all likelihood we will be recommending an appeal." Of course, the Council can appeal decisions through the court system, just as private organizations were able to use the judicial process to initiate such a suit.
Big Island Council Chairman Stacy Higa issued a prepared statement claiming that the proposed commission would "help establish balance between the open-meetings law and the ability of the legislative body to perform the public's business." The present system was intended to and has provided that balance.
The legislative proposal is aimed at shifting the balance to political convenience at the expense of public access, creating the very imbalance that the Sunshine Law was aimed at eliminating when it was enacted in 1975. The only change needed in the law is to include the Legislature, which brazenly made itself exempt.