Shine more light on governments at all levels
The state Office of Information Practices has been criticized for its interpretations of the open-records and -meetings laws.
STATE legislators have quashed an assault by the four County Council chairmen on Hawaii's agency in charge of open records and meetings. However, the trend toward greater secrecy in government continues at the local, state and federal levels. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have been cited to justify secrecy, but many curtains have nothing to do with national security and need to be opened.
This week's observance of National Sunshine Week marks the 40th anniversary of the federal Freedom of Information Act. The open-government law at the state level was enacted in 1975, but the Legislature conveniently exempted itself. It continues to operate under its own rules without adequate regard to public access.
A proposal by the council chairmen was aimed at stripping the state Office of Information Practices of its limited authority -- it is advisory, and its opinions can be challenged in court -- by making it answerable to a five-member commission. Leslie Kondo, the office's executive director, understandably saw the bill as "a thinly disguised attempt to say Kondo should be out."
City Council Chairman Donavan Dela Cruz said the office's interpretations of the law are "just not practical." Dela Cruz's view is consistent with those of many public officials who would like to run the government as if it were a private company, without citizen oversight.
The public disagrees. A poll taken by the Scripps Howard News Service found that 86 percent are "very interested" or "somewhat interested" in state and local government activities, and 88 percent are similarly interested in the federal government. Fifty-nine percent think the federal government has "too much secrecy," and 45 percent hold the same opinion about state and local governments.
Cognizant of that interest, the Legislature allowed the County Council proposal to die in committee. Lawmakers instead appear focused on restricting the office's capability by limiting its funding, rejecting its request for a fourth full-time attorney.
Throughout the country, a new Associated Press analysis found that states have limited public access to government information since 9/11. States passed 616 laws that restricted access but only 284 that shed more light on government records, databases and meetings.
At both the federal and state levels, citizens have had to wait far too long to responses to their requests for documents. An AP analysis of 250 federal requests found that the wait at 50 federal agencies ranged from three months to more than four years.
While pending requests for documents have increased in recent years at the 15 federal executive departments, the state commendably has reduced the backlog from 200 to 40 since Kondo was appointed to the post by Governor Lingle three years ago.