The Hawaii Office of Information Practices (OIP) reduced its backlog just by just six cases in the 2012 fiscal year, leaving 78 pending cases on its list — some of them years old, according to the office’s director. During the 2010 fiscal year, the office cleared 37 cases from its backlog.

OIP, which administers the state’s public records and open meetings law, says the slow progress is due in part to staffing shortages and a major uptick in requests for assistance.

The office received 253 more requests for assistance during the 2012 fiscal year than it did the year before, a 31 percent spike, according to its recently released annual report.

OIP Director Cheryl Kakazu Park attributed the increase to greater awareness among both the public and government agencies of the state’s open government requirements.

“We just worked really hard (at getting the word out),” Park said, noting that “Attorney of the Day” advice calls accounted for much of the increase.

But the office still suffers from understaffing, she said.

The office employs the equivalent of seven and a half full-time positions, according to Park, who’s served as OIP’s director since April 2011. (The report shows that the office had a staff of 15 between fiscal years 1993 and 1995.)

“We’re never going to be completely caught up with everything,” she said, estimating that the backlog would never go down to less than 50 cases at any given time. Some of the backlogged cases trace back to years before, according to Park.

The OIP promotes open and transparent government in Hawaii through the state’s two open government laws. One, known as the Uniform Information Practices Act (UIPA), requires public access to government records. The other, known as the Sunshine Law, mandates open public meetings. The laws ensure that government processes are transparent and open to public scrutiny.

The state Legislature in 1988 created the OIP to administer the UIPA. The OIP in 1998 gained responsibility over the Sunshine Law. The OIP under both laws provides guidance to the public and government agencies.

During the 2012 fiscal year, the OIP received 1,075 requests for assistance from the public and government agencies. The requests ranged from inquiries on obtaining records to complaints regarding violations of the open government laws.

The vast majority of requests — 940, or about 87 percent — were handled through the Attorney of the Day service.

“It’s just general advice — nothing binding,” Park said.

One-third of the Attorney of the Day calls from the public — 72 percent of those from private individuals. About 14 percent came from the news media.

The OIP was able to compensate for the surge in requests largely because it got the funding to fill its vacant attorney position in October 2011 — the first time in years, Park said. Now, the office has four staff attorneys, though one is part-time.

“We’ve had a whole lot of inquiries coming in, and that takes away from what we’re able to do … but the fourth attorney really helped,” she said.

Members of the public often use the service to determine whether government agencies are complying with the state’s open government laws.

Government agencies rely on the service for assistance in responding to record requests or abiding by Sunshine Law requirements.

But some of the requests bring about actual cases. The OIP last fiscal year issued 25 advisory opinions in response to such requests, but just two were considered formal.

According to the OIP report, formal opinions address complaints and appeals “that are novel or controversial, that require complex legal analysis or that involve specific records.” These opinions become precedent for later OIP opinions. (Informal opinions deal with issues that have already been analyzed by the OIP.)

One of the formal opinions issued last fiscal year deemed it mandatory that the Honolulu Real Property Assessment Division make public the mailing addresses of property owners.

The other formal opinion responded to a Hawaii Tribune-Herald request asking whether the Hawaii County Fire Department had to disclose the names and hometowns of people it rescued.

The OIP concluded that the disclosure of such information is determined on a case-by-case basis and is subject to federal privacy laws and the UIPA’s privacy exception.

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