Struggle focuses on access to records
There is a battle going on -- apparent in at least 11 bills introduced this legislative session -- over the role and authority of the state office charged with interpreting and ordering agencies to comply with Hawaii's open-records and meetings laws.
The state Office of Information Practices will hold a free workshop Thursday to discuss Hawaii's open-records and -meetings laws. The event starts at noon in room 414 at the state Capitol. For more information, go to www.hawaii.gov/oip.
On one side are open-government advocates who want to give the Office of Information Practices more money and enforcement powers, allowing it to file suit on its own against an agency that refuses to comply with an order.
Sparring with groups like the League of Women Voters, Citizen Voice and the Hawaii Pro-Democracy Initiative are City and County Council members and the city's head lawyer, who have criticized a number of the OIP's recent high-profile opinions.
They argue the agency needs an oversight board, which would shift the authority of the office from its executive director to a five-member council. The City Council has also tried twice to exempt itself from the state's so-called Sunshine Law.
In the mix are state lawmakers, who killed a bill that would have provided funds to increase the OIP's staff -- a move some say was motivated by an interest to keep the agency small and overwhelmed with work. The agency now has three full-time attorneys and an operating budget of about $380,000.
It had asked for $95,000 to hire one more attorney and a secretary.
This Sunshine Week, which marks the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Freedom of Information Act and runs through Saturday, advocates say there is reason to be worried about the future of openness in Hawaii and around the country.
Nationwide, they say, government openness is under fire in the name of national security. In Hawaii some leaders have argued that it is more efficient for lawmakers to make decisions behind closed doors. "I think sometimes governments want to behave like corporations," said Peter Bower, president of Citizen Voice in the islands. "We need to have an open system."
The OIP was created 18 years ago, and supporters say it has gotten new life under current Executive Director Leslie Kondo, who was named to the spot three years ago by Gov. Linda Lingle. Under Kondo's tenure the OIP has reduced the number of pending requests -- some of which were a decade old -- to 40 from 200.
Also under Kondo, the agency has ruled against the City Council, Kauai County Council, former Mayor Jeremy Harris and a state legislator.
"I believe the open-government groups support what he's doing," said state Sen. Les Ihara, a longtime openness advocate. "He's calling it as he sees it. He's asserting the power of his office that was always there."
But several council members have publicly denounced Kondo's opinions and have criticized the way the OIP is being run under his leadership. The chairmen of the four County Councils supported a bill in the state Legislature that would have created a five-member commission to oversee the OIP.
The bill never passed out of committee.
In January, when the Councils announced the bill's introduction, City Council Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz told the Star-Bulletin that "everyone has noted that some of the opinions that OIP has published are extreme." Last week, Dela Cruz also said that the OIP's interpretations of the law are "just not practical."
The chairmen of the Kauai and Hawaii County Councils did not return several phone calls for comment last week.
Three other bills that sought exemptions to the Sunshine Law have also died, while one that would allow boards to discuss business with less than a quorum at nonboard meetings is still alive.
Meanwhile, two bills that would have called for more sunshine have also not moved. And a measure that would have given OIP enforcement power did not make the legislative crossover.
Kondo said that much of the dispute over how his office is run has gotten personal. "The bill that wanted to put the board over OIP, that was a personal attack. We were being used politically," he said.
He also said that the bill was a "thinly disguised attempt to say Kondo should be out," adding that he would step down if the governor asked him to. "I think sometimes people lose track of the big picture," he said. "They're not sitting on a private board. They're sitting as elected officials."