Council sunshine law
exemption remains alive

Opponents say the bill
stifles citizens' rights
to open government

By Rosemarie Bernardo

A bill exempting county councils from the state open meetings law is moving in the state Senate.

"The strict interpretation (of the sunshine law) makes it very difficult for them to do business," said Sen. Cal Kawamoto (D, Waipahu), chairman of the Transportation, Military Affairs and Government Operations Committee.

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Earlier, Kawamoto voted in favor of -- and the four other committee members approved with reservations -- Senate Bill 314 S.D. 1, which now goes to the Senate Judiciary Committee with a Feb. 28 deadline for passage.

The Honolulu City Council asked Kawamoto to introduce the bill. It calls for county councils to be excluded from the sunshine law and follow their own ordinances, charters or council rules involving open meeting requirements.

Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii, the League of Women Voters of Hawaii and the state Office of Information Practices oppose the bill.

Larry Meacham, legislative liaison for the ACLU-Hawaii, described the measure as a "terrible bill."

In written testimony, Meacham said, "Government is not run for the convenience of government officials and their campaign contributors, but to produce the best decisions for all citizens.

"Citizens are entitled to attend open meetings of the government they support with taxes," he added.

Jean Aoki, legislative chairwoman for the League of Women Voters, said, "It would give complete secrecy of the work of the counties.

"Without the sunshine law, we will be regressing. The sunshine law was enacted for the particular purpose for encouraging citizen participation in public policy," Aoki said.

"Without the sunshine law, there would be no democracy."

Les Kondo, director of the Office of Information Practices, said, "I just think it's better to have a uniformed law that people can rely on so they have access to government."

Kawamoto said county councils should have the same exemptions as the state Legislature. "We do the same things. We're making policies for the state. They're making policies for the city."

City Council Vice Chairwoman Anne Kobayashi said the law makes it "a bit awkward" for Council members.

"It's not like we're gonna have secret meetings behind closed doors," Kobayashi said. "Even though we're not making decisions, everything has to be done one on one."

In written testimony, City Councilman Rod Tam said the law makes it "difficult for Council members to attend social functions, cultural events or other non-legislative functions without being in violation of the sunshine law."

However, under the sunshine law, two board members may interact privately between themselves to gather information. And the law forbids using "chance" meetings between members to talk about business and deliberate toward a decision.

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