information is online
Question: While looking for information on the City and County of Honolulu real property assessment Web site, I was alarmed to find that very personal information can be accessed without authorization from anyone. While I do not object to the city having a database for access by such entities as title companies, etc., I believe that free access (without registration or secure clearance) is an invasion of privacy. Can you clarify this matter with the Real Property Assessment Division?
Answer: Like you, many people may be surprised at what kinds of personal information kept by government is accessible, often online, these days.
State law -- Hawaii Revised Statutes 92F, the Uniform Information Practices Act -- opens government records to public review, unless there is an overriding legal reason to keep them secret.
Posting the information on the Internet is a decision made by each agency, said Les Kondo, director of the state Office of Information Practices.
The OIP is set up to provide information to both the public and government agencies regarding the information practices act, as well as mediate disputes over access to government records.
While his office does receive complaints about information "that is out there," the majority of the complaints are because people "are trying to get access and access has been denied. Or else it's been slow (in coming)," Kondo said.
In your case, "I understand what (you're) complaining about," he said, "but that wouldn't be our business because that real property tax information is supposed to be made public," by law.
Property assessment information is provided online -- www.honolulupropertytax.com -- as a public service to property owners, many of whom do not live on Oahu and, therefore, are unable to go to the office in person, said Carol Costa, director of the city Department of Customer Services.
"Many people appreciate the opportunity to check their assessment to make sure it is correct and that the taxes owed have been paid," she said.
You cannot search by name, she said, and no "sensitive information," such as telephone or Social Security numbers, are revealed.
However, with just an address, you can find information such as the owner, sales history, permits, size of lot, etc., as well as assessed value.
The Uniform Information Practices Act covers all government agencies in the state and county.
Government records, according to OIP, are defined as "information maintained by an agency in written, auditory, visual, electronic or other physical form."
Among records available for public inspection -- pertaining to individuals -- are: records about present and former officers and employees of an agency, including name, salary/salary range, education and training background, previous work experience, etc.; building permit information; and land ownership, transfer, and lien records.
Kondo explained that, "The presumption is that every record that a government agency maintains is public and they can only withhold it if there is an exception to that rule."
There are five exceptions listed in the law, as well as "a number of confidentiality provisions that are outside our statutes. Personal income tax records are a good example" of the latter, he said.
One exception involves balancing an individual's privacy interests vs. the public's right to know.
Examples would be former University of Hawaii President Evan Dobelle's evaluation by the Board of Regents and UH football coach June Jones' contract, Kondo said. Both were released based on the public's right to know.
However, if the privacy interest outweighs the public's right to know, then the record would not be required to be released.
Among the records restricted or closed by law because they would "constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy," are: an individual's medical, psychiatric, or psychological history; eligibility for social services or welfare benefits; information describing an individual's finances; and personal recommendations or evaluations.
Kondo said the other most frequently used exception to prevent disclosure is called "the 'frustration exception,' where disclosure would frustrate the government's ability to do its job."
Restricted records under this exception include law enforcement records; information pertaining to real property being considered for future public acquisition, unless otherwise available under state law; records pertaining to the prosecution or defense of any judicial action involving the state or county; records protected from disclosure by state/federal law or judicial rule; as well as partial and draft working papers of legislative committees, the personal files of members of the Legislature, and unfiled committee reports.
In the case of the "frustration" exception, "The agency just has to be able to articulate the frustration," Kondo said. "As long as it's legitimate, we would defer to that agency division and they can withhold the record."
In general, he defended the open records law, noting that it gives people the right to get something like a birth certificate.
"As I tell people, everyone in their lifetime is likely to use our statute, whether or not they cite it," he said. "They are going to be able to get a record that government has."
The law "also gives the watchdog people the ability or the right to make sure that government is toeing the line when it should be toeing the line. They (may) find that things are being dumped in places they shouldn't be dumped and that's because of records, usually. So it serves its purpose even though, from some people's perspective, it's kind of a humbug."
If you have more questions or a complaint, contact the OIP, which is attached to the Attorney General's Office, at 586-1400, or e-mail email@example.com.
Kinau Street update
In the Aug. 18 Kokua Line, we printed an "auwe" about the lack of lines along Kinau Street, just after the H-1 freeway exit.
We passed the complaint on to the city Department of Customer Services, which forwarded it to the appropriate department. New lines and reflectors were installed about a week later.
For similar concerns along city streets, call 523-4381 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
To the gentleman who came to the rescue of our mother when she fell on Friday, Sept. 3, at the crosswalk at Kaheka and King streets. She was unable to pull herself up from the sidewalk. This kind man came from across the street to help her up, then escorted her across the street and to the bank. We are very thankful and hope he sees this.
-- Christine and Richard Lightner
See the Columnists
section for some past articles.
Got a question or complaint?
Call 529-4773, fax 529-4750, or write to Kokua Line,
Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., No. 7-210,
Honolulu 96813. As many as possible will be answered.
E-mail to email@example.com