We got an answer this week from the state Office of Information Practices to a question we asked about the availability of police accident reports.
Let the OIP
rest in peace
We would have welcomed the reply except that our former editorial page editor John Simonds asked the question on July 30, 1990.
Not only did it take OIP more than nine years to respond, but the answer was that a law passed by the Legislature in 1996 effectively rendered our question moot. After six years of sitting on our query, it took OIP another three and a half years to even tell us about the "new" law. And this wasn't the fumbling of a minimum-wage clerk, but a staff attorney.
Gov. Ben Cayetano promised that his administration would set a new standard for open government. But under his leadership, the Office of Information Practices -- supposedly the primary agent in the fight for openness -- has instead become an agency to legitimize secrecy.
OIP is unwittingly the best friend of government officials who seek to keep the public in the dark about how they take care of the special interests that sustain them ahead of the public interest they've sworn to serve.
If you're a government official who has something to hide, what do you do? Send it to OIP for a ruling. With a case backlog that produced a nine-year delay in answering Simonds' simple question, you can rest assured that whatever you're trying to hide won't surface again until well into the next administration.
OIP has become such a useless sham that it's time to give Cayetano what he really wants and put the final bullet in its head. Let OIP's corpse lay as testament to the Cayetano administration's shameful legacy of thwarting the public's right to know.
The Legislature created OIP in 1988 as part of the Uniform Information Practices Act, which was designed to serve the noble purpose of promoting the free flow of government information to the public while protecting the legitimate privacy rights of citizens.
At the time, Hawaii was among only a handful of states that officially recognized the importance of open government in a democratic society. And to its credit, OIP has generally come down on the side of openness when given the chance to do its job.
But in recent years, the office has seen its budget cut by more than 50 percent. It has been shuffled from the attorney general's office to the lieutenant governor and bogged down with frivolous cases from state agencies that seem under instruction from the administration not to give out any information to the public without a fight.
In such an environment, delays like we saw on the Simonds request are inevitable. Simonds tends to be charitable in his assessment, if with tongue in cheek.
"I suppose they should be praised for finishing it up," he said. "They could have just buried it and never gotten back to me and I never would have remembered."
If that's the best they can do, we should put a uselessly crippled agency out of its misery and save taxpayers the few remaining dollars OIP has to spend. Maybe some day we'll get an administration that sees information as a right of citizens in a free society instead of part of the spoils of political victory.
David Shapiro is managing editor of the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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