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Thursday, March 2, 2000

Legislature 2000

In and around the Capitol

Senate acts to protect
watchdog agency

By Ian Lind


A key Senate committee has approved a measure that would provide stability to the Office of Information Practices by making it a permanent program within the state ombudsman's office.

The move involves shifting OIP from an executive to a legislative agency, which supporters say will increase its independence and effectiveness.

The bill was one of dozens adopted last night by the Ways and Means Committee and to the full Senate for a vote before tomorrow's decking deadline.

The move, if eventually approved by both the Senate and House, could give new life to OIP, which has been crippled by budget cuts and staff turnover since 1994.

It would be the agency's second move in as many years. OIP was designated a temporary agency in 1998, following four years of budget cuts, and moved from the control of the attorney general to the lieutenant governor's office.

In addition to providing a new bureaucratic home, the Senate bill would insulate the information agency from political pressures by providing its director a six-year term, with removal from office only for "neglect of duty, misconduct, or disability."

OIP director Moya Gray was ill and could not be reached for comment.

Ethics Commission Director Dan Mollway, called OIP "absolutely important" both for agencies and members of the public who turn to it for assistance in sorting out what government records must be available for public inspection and copying.

Mollway said he noticed watchdog agencies "tend to suffer resource-wise" in the executive branch.

"There seems to be an inherent conflict being in the executive branch because in many instances it is an executive agency that doesn't want to release a document, and OIP is put in the awkward position of saying it must be public," he said. "It just doesn't make sense for one branch of government to be quarreling with itself."

The House, meanwhile, has been pursuing a different approach that would reshape OIP into an agency primarily concerned with protecting personal privacy.

Several bills now awaiting Finance Committee action would dramatically expand OIP's powers to enforce privacy restrictions. The committee heard conflicting testimony on a bill to establish the Hawaii information privacy act, which would create new requirements for most businesses that maintain data on their customers.

Under proposed privacy standards, individuals could choose to restrict the use of information about themselves, or its transfer to others.

The OIP director would be authorized to create a series of privacy codes interpreting the meaning of privacy laws already on the books and their application to particular types of information, specific activities, or industry sectors.

Many business groups have opposed the new privacy proposals, citing both increased costs of compliance to business and government, and the creation of new regulatory layers when the state is trying to eliminate unneeded rules and red tape.

Another pending House bill would give OIP new powers to pursue violations related to the privacy of health care information.

A Legislative Reference Bureau report released in January cautioned that expanding OIP's privacy enforcement powers could be "the first significant step" away from its current mission of assuring public access to government information.

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