UH regents cited for secrecy
A state office rules that a closed-door meeting last month should have been open to the public
Most of a closed-door University of Hawaii Board of Regents meeting last month should have been open to the public, the state Office of Information Practices said in an opinion this month.
The Honolulu Star-Bulletin and UH journalism professor Bev Keever requested the opinion on whether the regents violated the Sunshine Law after they posted a vague notice of the Feb. 9 meeting to consider "the university's powers, duties, privileges, immunities and liabilities with respect to financial issues."
In a Feb. 21 letter to OIP, UH General Counsel Walter Kirimitsu said the meeting was held to brief the regents about the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which established new standards for accountability for corporate officers and board directors.
To understand the full extent of their duties, Kirimitsu said, the regents needed to be aware of the budget and finance system, structure and practices of the university.
However, OIP said the exemptions to the open meetings law should be "strictly construed" so briefings on how the university is run and general advice on Sarbanes-Oxley should have been in public session. Only advice and discussion on specific legal issues can be held in executive session, OIP attorney Jennifer Brooks wrote.
Keever said she stood outside the door during the four-hour meeting and watched through a window as the university's chief financial officer, Howard Toto, presented a series of computer-generated slides, but she was not allowed to hear the discussion.
From what she could tell, "this would have been an interesting and informative discussion for all sorts of people," who are interested in learning how the university is run, she said.
"They (the regents and university lawyers) should realize we're in the information age," Keever said.
"It's the wrong attitude," she added. "They (government officials) should assume the public is interested and wants to be informed."
Kirimitsu said last week that he believes that his general legal advice to the regents on how to best comply with Sarbanes-Oxley is protected by attorney/client privilege and it would have been difficult to separate out the legal advice from the briefing given to the regents.
"I don't think the opinion is wrong, but I don't think it applied to the actual situation and facts of our meeting," Kirimitsu said.
Regents Chairwoman Kitty Lagareta said, "We're all a little surprised by this one. It was a legal briefing on Sarbanes-Oxley and the financial risk issues that I think the regents need to understand.
"We made no decision (during the meeting)," she said, adding that the Sunshine Law does allow for executive session for legal and personnel matters. "There must be reasons where it is better to do it in closed session," she said.
Keever agreed that a portion of the meeting dealing with specific legal advice can be closed.
However, she said, "you can't close 95 percent of the meeting for just a very brief period for which that exemption is really in force."