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Monday, October 30, 2000

State should respond
to information needs

Bullet The issue: Governor Cayetano criticized the state Health Department for withholding information about an inmate who killed his mother who escaped from the Hawaii State Hospital.
Bullet Our view: The state should ease restrictions on the release of information while protecting justifiable claims to privacy.

GOVERNOR Cayetano took a common-sense position when he criticized the state Health Department for its refusal to release information on the escape from Hawaii State Hospital of a mental patient who had killed his mother. The department's position stemmed from advice from the Attorney General's Office, which was based on privacy considerations.

The governor said he told state Health Director Bruce Anderson he thought the department "took too conservative an approach, given the fact that this guy murdered people. Common sense dictates we do what is relevant to the safety of the community."

It seems obvious that the community had to be alerted about the inmate's escape -- he turned himself in two days later -- because of the danger he posed.

The governor, who is himself a lawyer, evidently disagreed with the advice received from the Attorney General's Office. He said he had sent a memo to all departments, directing them to be more open in dealing with the news media and the public.

Cayetano told reporters, "From now on, when you ask for information, we will ask the attorney general for his or her opinion, but it is just an opinion. We will use common sense and err on the side of providing the information to the public."

The pledge to provide more information is certainly welcome from our perspective. Government at all levels -- federal, state and county -- has too often resisted the news media's and private citizens' legitimate attempts to obtain information.

However, the idea that the advice of the Attorney General's Office can be ignored may lead to problems if people sue for invasion of privacy. State officials who reject the attorney general's advice may leave themselves personally liable to lawsuits. The solution may lie in changing the law rather than ignoring the advice of the state's lawyers.

Cayetano also complained about the state Office of Information Practices, which he said "is developing into a bureaucratic maze." He said, "If I had my way, I'd get rid of it and deal with the information the old way -- you folks (the news media) basically got what you wanted or you held the governor accountable."

But the "old way" wasn't so great. Too much information of public interest was withheld. Holding the governor accountable usually didn't work.

The Office of Information Practices was established with the mission of setting policy for departments of the state government on the release of information. The hope was that this would result in fewer restrictions on the release of information, with due regard for considerations of privacy.

However, the office has been starved for funds, with the result that it hasn't had the staff needed to respond promptly to inquiries from state departments and agencies about releasing information. A backlog of such inquiries has developed that has created the "bureaucratic maze" the governor spoke of.

The solution is not to eliminate the office -- which would leave each department free to withhold information as it chose -- but to give the office the resources to do its job.

Scandal in Japan

Bullet The issue: The top aide to Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori has been implicated in a scandal and has resigned.
Bullet Our view: Mori's blunders have costs him public support but he is likely to cling to power for some time, to Japan's detriment.

YOSHIRO Mori became prime minister of Japan last April when Premier Keizo Obuchi suffered a stroke that later proved fatal. Mori, who had previously held the Liberal Democratic Party's second highest post, secretary general, was known more for his loyalty to Obuchi and to the party establishment than for leadership qualities.

Since becoming premier, Mori has demonstrated a penchant for getting into hot water with careless remarks. He shocked many by referring to Japan as a "divine nation," a term ringing of Japan's World War II militarism. Ahead of parliamentary elections last summer, he urged undecided voters, who weren't expected to support his party, to stay in bed rather than vote.

Recently he caused an uproar for revealing to British Prime Minister Tony Blair an unsuccessful diplomatic initiative three years ago to secure the release of 10 Japanese allegedly kidnapped by North Korea in the 1970s. He told Blair Japan had proposed to the Pyongyang government that it arrange for the missing Japanese to be "discovered" living in a neighboring country.

Opposition party leaders slammed that idea as shallow and irresponsible and latched onto the remarks as proof that Mori is unfit for leadership.

Now Mori's top aide has resigned in a scandal based on allegations that he had connections with a right-wing figure and was involved in an extramarital affair.

The official, Hidenao Nakagawa, the chief cabinet secretary, who serves as the principal government spokesman, became the second cabinet minister to step down in disgrace since Mori was tapped to lead the conservative coalition government.

Mori's standing in public opinion is low and sinking. A poll published last Wednesday showed his support rate fell from 28 to 23 percent in September. A separate telephone poll found Mori's disapproval rating had risen five points to 56 percent.

With elections to Japan's upper house slated for next July, it appeared unlikely that Mori's job would be immediately jeopardized by the scandal.

But the disturbing prospect is that Japan will continue to be led for the coming months if not years by a bumbling mediocrity when effective leadership is badly needed.

Published by Liberty Newspapers Limited Partnership

Rupert E. Phillips, CEO

John M. Flanagan, Editor & Publisher

David Shapiro, Managing Editor

Diane Yukihiro Chang, Senior Editor & Editorial Page Editor

Frank Bridgewater & Michael Rovner, Assistant Managing Editors

A.A. Smyser, Contributing Editor

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