Friday, May 18, 2001

UH regents cleared
in ‘sunshine’ lawsuit

By Treena Shapiro

The University of Hawaii Board of Regents did not violate the state's "sunshine law" when it decided behind closed doors to raise the UH president's salary, Circuit Court Judge Virginia Lea Crandall ruled yesterday.

University of Hawaii

The Hawaii Society of Professional Journalists and UH graduate student Mamo Kim filed a lawsuit against the board last month, alleging that the regents violated the state's open-meetings law when they decided in secret to pay President-designate Evan Dobelle $442,000 a year. Current UH President Kenneth Mortimer earns $167,000.

The plaintiffs had asked that the court void the regents' decision on the president's salary and hold a public meeting with adequate notice to allow interested parties the opportunity to participate in the decision-making. Crandall denied the motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary relief.

Dobelle will assume the presidency on July 2.

Carl Varady, attorney for the plaintiffs, said Dobelle's appointment and salary were not in question, but rather the process that the regents used to make their decision.

Dobelle's selection and salary were determined in closed-door meetings on March 1 and March 5 for which no public notice was given, he said. Public notice was given for a special public meeting on March 12, at which Dobelle's appointment and salary were announced and voted on.

Varady alleged that the secret meetings were a violation of Hawaii's open-meetings, or sunshine, law, which requires that government agencies allow the public the right to participate in decisions on actions that involve public policy.

"This is an extraordinary amount of money a state official is being paid," and will cost the state more than $3 million by the time the contract expires on June 30, 2008, he said. "Decisions of public importance are not made in the back room."

However, UH attorney Ruth Tsujimura said that "the decision to hire Dr. Dobelle was made during an open meeting (on March 12), and the notice was adequate." No notice was given for the March 1 and 5 meetings, but, the defense argued, the two executive sessions were a continuation of a properly announced meeting on Feb. 23 that had been recessed and reconvened twice.

"The meetings of March 1 and 5 were clearly a continuation of the hiring process in executive session," Tsujimura said.

The sunshine law allows the board to go into executive session to discuss matters of appointment and to protect the privacy of nongovernment employees, in this case Dobelle, Tsujimura said. The hiring committee could not assure candidates privacy if terms of employment, such as salary, had to be discussed publicly.

The public was given the opportunity to testify at the March 12 meeting, she said, pointing out that Lance Collins spoke on behalf of the Graduate Students Organization, of which plaintiff Kim is president.

Crandall ruled that the meeting notices were adequate and that salary could be discussed in executive session.

"The terms and conditions of employment are an essential part of the decision to hire, and it is appropriate to discuss those in executive session," she said.

Varady called the March 12 meeting a "rubber-stamp ratification of a prior decision already made by the board," and noted that Dobelle had already been given a lei and was waiting in the wings with an acceptance speech while the board voted.

He also said the regents violated the sunshine law at their April 20 regular meeting, when three students asked that they revisit the president's salary in open session.

The board went into executive session without voting on it and came back with the decision to deny the students' request, he said.

Crandall said that she did not have enough information to make a ruling on this allegation.

Varady said he would appeal the court's decision.

University of Hawaii

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