ACCESS TO INFORMATION
Agencies deny 1 in 4 requests
An audit of freedom of information compliance finds delays in the process
>> Task force proposal puts 'foxes in charge of the hen house'
Citizen volunteers who requested public information from county and state agencies were denied about one out of four times, according to a first-ever audit of the state's compliance with freedom of information laws.
Even if the request was eventually granted, most requesters had to make multiple trips to get the information. In about a third of the requests, they were questioned about why they wanted the information and were asked to give their names about one in five times, which can discourage people from seeking public information, the audit noted.
Les Kondo, the director of the state Office of Information Practices, said he will be following up on the survey to find out what happened in each case and educate the staff about the release of documents.
"We're going to warn agencies that there's a chilling effect when you start asking people who they are and why they want it," Kondo said.
Public information advocates said the survey shows a lack of awareness by government officials of whether a document was public or not.
Stirling Morita, of the Society of Professional Journalists Hawaii chapter, said he was disappointed in the delays to produce public records here, but said in general Hawaii did better than other states where similar audits were conducted.
Volunteers from 10 community groups organized to seek records that agencies have listed as public, Morita said. They asked for 59 records from 25 state agencies and 34 county agencies.
Citizens, instead of reporters, made the requests, to avoid having agencies give journalists favorable treatment.
Only 17 requests were fulfilled on the first contact with the agency. Forty-three requests were eventually fulfilled, about 73 percent, and information was not provided in 16 requests.
The records sought included travel records, nonbid contracts, consultant contracts, office space and land leases, legal settlements, criminal information, restaurant inspection reports, and personnel lists.
Personnel lists provided the most trouble for requesters -- in seven out of eight times, the requesters were asked for their name and the reason they wanted to see the records.
The Governor's Office required requesters to fill out an Office of Information Practices form before releasing information on her travel expenses. The Senate president's office said it was office procedure to sign a log before seeing his travel records.
In contrast, the House speaker's office might have released too much information -- his social security number was included in the records.
THE FIGHT FOR FREEDOM OF INFORMATION
State and County agencies gave a variety of excuses for not providing records immediately, including:
» A staff member said there were no nonbid contracts on Maui in the last six months, only single-source purchases.
» The University of Hawaii requires a written request for legal settlements; two written requests were faxed to the UH general counsel's office, but no response was received.
» A requester was asked twice to narrow a request for Honolulu nonbid contracts and referred to another staff member. Two messages were left, but no one called back.
» A requester was told an opinion from a deputy attorney general was needed to release a copy of a restaurant inspection unless the requester gave a name. The staff member refused to give his name since the requester also refused; but a supervisor eventually provided the report.
» A staff member said she didn't want a requester to know her name when the requester asked for a Department of Education Kona office personnel list. Afterward in the parking lot, another woman office worker chased the requester's car shouting, "you sure aren't getting my name either ... just remember that."
Source: Freedom of Information Hawaii
Task force proposal puts 'foxes in charge of the hen house'
Open government advocates criticized a House proposal that would set up a task force of people appointed by elected officials to look at state sunshine laws.
"If you look at the bill, these are all foxes in charge of the hen house," said Jacqueline Parnell, the president of the League of Women Voters in Honolulu.
They also objected to the way the bill came about as an example of the kind of secrecy in government that the sunshine law is designed to protect against.
The comments against SB 1061, HD1, came before a lunch yesterday marking Freedom of Information Week in Hawaii.
As is the occasional practice in the Legislature, which is exempt from the sunshine law, the House Judiciary Committee gutted an unrelated bill and drafted a brand new bill late Friday creating the task force.
A hearing was scheduled yesterday afternoon, but Stirling Morita of the Society of Professional Journalists said the committee would not release a copy of the new bill until Monday, which was not enough time to study the bill and submit testimony 24 hours in advance of the hearing.
The hearing also conflicted with the end of yesterday's lunch, which might have prevented people from testifying.
Judiciary Chairwoman Sylvia Luke has now changed the date of the hearing to next week Tuesday, Morita said.
Luke (D, Dowsett Highlands-Punchbowl) did not return a call yesterday asking for comment.
"Right now the composition of the group clearly seems to be slanted (in favor of government officials)," said Les Kondo, the director of the state Office of Information Practices.