View Point

Friday, September 25, 1998

Rules would reduce
access to government
documents

Requiring written requests and hourly
research fees would discourage free flow
of information to public

By Larry Meacham

Tapa

The attorney general's office and the Office of Information Practices (OIP) have proposed new rules that would make it slower, more difficult and more expensive for the public to obtain government documents.

The original Hawaii law on public access, the 1989 Uniform Information Practices Act (UIPA), was very clear and strong on allowing citizens to obtain government information, stating, "Government agencies exist to aid the people in the formation and conduct of public policy. Opening up the government processes to public scrutiny and participation is the only viable and reasonable method of protecting the public's interest."

However, many of the new proposals contradict this ideal.

For example, under the new rules, agencies could require a formal written request for any information, even if you want only one page. Other proposals would allow an agency to delay giving our information for 10 to 30 days or even postpone things indefinitely by notifying the citizen that the documents will be given out "later," with no time limit.

One new loophole would allow agencies to delay by consulting with OIP on every request and to decide on their own when a request is "unreasonable" interference with their duties. Again, this contradicts the UIPA, which says, "Each agency upon request by any person shall make government records available for copying during regular business hours...Each agency shall assure reasonable access to facilities for duplicating records and for making memoranda or abstracts."

Another disturbing new proposal is to charge $10-$20 an hour for "searching, reviewing and segregating the record" and to charge "other fees" for a variety of reasons. We strongly disagree with this. Taxpayer money was used to assemble the information in the first place. Asking taxpayers to pay again for their own information is unfair. And making disclosure contingent on payment of fees again directly contradicts the UIPA, which says releasing information is part of the agencies' affirmative responsibilities.

One proposal even requires prepaying of fees. This would slow things down even more, since the agencies may spend weeks deciding whether a check has cleared. (Even if the agency decides not to give you the documents, you still would have to pay the search fees.)

Agencies do have a legitimate problem dealing with the costs of very large information requests from lawsuits and from companies using government documents to make private profit. These should be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Otherwise, we should follow the federal Freedom of Information guidelines, which grant requests for documents immediately and for free if they require less than two hours of work and are under 100 pages. This would take care of 99 percent of citizen and media requests.

Some bureaucrats want restrictive rules and fees. However, most want to provide public access and recognize that the costs of administering fees would exceed the revenues. Meanwhile, we citizens must protect our right to obtain government information developed with our tax money. The new proposals need to be seriously rethought.


Larry Meacham is executive director
of Common Cause Hawaii.



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