They were told it would cost $20,000. Protracted litigation ensued. Three years later, the records still have not been released.
Last month, Molokai activist DeGray Vanderbilt asked to see Molokai Ranch's application for government tax credits.
The state Housing Finance and Development Corp. told him no, not until a ruling could come down from the Office of Information Practices.
Hawaii residents seeking access to government records frequently run into roadblocks put up by a bureaucracy that is supposed to work for them.
Often, the matter gets tied up in the courts or before the Office of Information Practices, causing delays that frustrate those in immediate search of records.
First, Kato said, the department demanded $20,000 for employee time to go through the records and put them in a form for easy consumption by the public.
"It all obviously was a ruse to try to discourage us from getting the information," Kato said.
After the Office of Information Practices ordered the department to release the records, the department gave notice that it would be releasing them in 10 days.
Kato said that gave the State Organization of Police Officers time to block the disclosure through the courts.
A Circuit Court judge later ruled that SHOPO's contract, which contains a confidentiality clause for disciplined members, superseded the state public records law.
The Hawaii Supreme Court is expected to hear oral arguments on an appeal by the students and OIP next month.
Meanwhile, the Legislature repealed the disclosure law during its 1995 session.
Kato believes that police officers should be treated like other government employees. "You lose part of (a right to privacy) by virtue of becoming a public employee," he said. "It may not be pleasant, but the public is entitled to know what's going on."
SHOPO attorney David Gerlach disagrees. Police officers live with a more stringent code of conduct than other government employees and also "must frequently make split-second decisions in life and death situations."
Therefore, "it's important for the safety and well-being of police officers that administrative discipline is maintained privately within the department," he said.
SPJ attorney Jeffrey Portnoy estimates he's spent $200,000 doing free work on behalf of the student journalists, and wonders what person or individual could have pursued the matter to this level.
But Portnoy said the case is troubling: "When public employee unions can negotiate secrecy, then we're in real big trouble."
The Police Department refused to comment on the issue.
Janice Okubo, agency assistant housing officer, said the agency's staff attorney advised that the entire document be held until a ruling could be made by the Office of Information Practices.
"OIP determines which records are open," Okubo said. No applicant has ever made a confidentiality request before and "we don't have the expertise to make that kind of determination."
Okubo said that in the meantime, Vanderbilt and others in the public can review minutes of the board meeting which described the ranch's proposal in detail.
OIP Executive Director Moya Davenport Gray said she is waiting for ranch attorneys to submit their reasoning.
Ranch spokeswoman Lori Hoo said the request to keep the file closed was made when the application was submitted. She cited proprietary information for wanting to keep the record closed.
"Ultimately, if we go in for tax credits in the future, it would give our competitors an advantage to review all of the information in that previous application."
Besides information relating to the ranch's operations, "there is also personal information (about employees) that needs to remain confidential."
Vanderbilt, who is seeking to challenge the granting of what amounts to $2.4 million in tax credits, is outraged. Last year's application by Molokai Ranch for tax credits was kept open, he said, and he doesn't think there is too much difference in the documents.
"The people on the (HFDC) staff need to learn about how documents have to be opened to the public rather than sending every request for confidentiality to OIP just to cover their okoles," Vanderbilt said.
There's no reason for keeping the application closed if decisions have already been made on the application, he said.
Vanderbilt has questions about the propriety of the ranch project and says he can't get to information necessary to make his case.
"They're cutting back social services all over Molokai and the state," he said.
"The public should be allowed to scrutinize to see where their money is going."
Public access advocates like Kato decry the excuses made by government agencies for withholding documents, particularly, as in the SHOPO case, when budgetary and staff constraints are cited.
"The budget crisis is really a poor excuse," Kato said. "When you say giving public information on what the government is doing is a low priority, that's a slap in the face to the public."