Hawaii's World

By A.A. Smyser

Thursday, May 30, 1996

Sunshine restraints should be relaxed

I differ from a number of my media friends in practically praying that Governor Cayetano will sign the bill relaxing restraints in the state sunshine law.

Yes, we need open public meetings and accountable public decision-making. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the public meeting law as now interpreted is a road to hell. It restrains free speech.

My star witness is Howard Stephenson. He served eight years on the University of Hawaii Board of Regents and was chairman from 1991 to 1994, three years.

He also spent 42 years as a banker. For five years before he retired in 1994 he was CEO of Bancorp Hawaii, one of Hawaii's biggest and most successful businesses.

Stephenson says there is no way he could have successfully led Bancorp with the existing state sunshine rules that make it illegal for two board members to talk together without a public meeting notice being filed in advance.

"And how could the Legislature possibly operate under them?" he asks. The legislators don't, thank goodness.But they still passed the law that makes state boards and commissions operate in this hog-tied way. Finally, they have passed House Bill 1866 relaxing the rule.

When Stephenson had a problem at the bank he would call some of his top people together on short notice to talk about it. In between problems he chatted freely with his business associates about bank matters, sometimes seeking information and opinions, sometimes passing some on.

The law still governing state boards and commissions forbids such talk except in open meetings duly announced in advance. It does allow for emergency meetings but under constraints.

The effect, says Stephenson, is to delay decisions and make agencies less effective. The process makes committee chairmen more powerful. They usually come to meetings better briefed than anyone else. A board executive secretary becomes more powerful, too.

Board members legally can communicate with each other through him or her, but not directly with each other. They can't talk with the chairman about board matters between meetings, even if all they are seeking is information. Humbug!

I've sat on a lot of volunteer boards and valued the chance to get briefed on an issue before the meeting by some well-informed member. Having to expose one's ignorance in public is embarrassing, inhibiting and slows meetings.

Under the revisions now on Governor Cayetano's desk:

Our ethics and sunshine laws are based on a healthy fear of abuse of power. But many go beyond this to formalize a distrust that inhibits good government.

Stephenson said the people he met in public service assignments were all well-meaning but prevented from doing their best. Sounder public policy, he believes, would be to jump on bad decisions and remove members who perform badly. Under "sunshine," process is being emphasized over quality of product. He would like even more liberalization than that of HB 1866.

A.A. Smyser is the Star-Bulletin's contributing editor.
His column runs Tuesday and Thursday.

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