Editor’s note: This commentary is in response to a Community Voices piece published Thursday, “Agency: Report On Open Records Access Is ‘Staggeringly Misleading.”

The Hawaii Office of Information Practices serves a vital role in Hawaii. Its core purpose is to review and rule on denials of public access to government information under the public records and open meetings laws.

When working as intended, OIP critically advances the state’s declared policy that government operations — whether that concerns environmental issues, affordable housing, or prisons — “be conducted as openly as possible.”

The current mission of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest is to seek collaborative solutions that promote government transparency and responsiveness. Despite a common misperception, we are not Honolulu Civil Beat’s in-house counsel. Our services are open to all.

R Brian Black Executive Director Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest testifies during charter commission meeting at Honolulu Hale.

Brian Black testifying at Honolulu Hale in 2016. His work includes closely watching what government agencies, especially OIP, do and how they do it.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In furtherance of that mission, we provide advocacy and free legal advice to the public concerning not only state public records and open meetings, but also federal open government laws and constitutional rights of access to judicial proceedings. Our record in court and the Legislature reflects our broad support for government transparency, including advocacy for individuals outside the news media.

Consistent with our mission, the Law Center’s goal is and always has been a healthy OIP focused on its core mission.

OIP Lacks Expeditious Review Process

Recently, that mission led us to publish a second report concerning delays in OIP ruling on disputes about denials of public access. After receiving numerous complaints from members of the public, the Law Center published its first report last year in an effort to provide more data for a public policy discussion about OIP’s review process. Our reports, including the data that we used, and OIP’s responses are posted on the Resources page of the Law Center’s website.

While we appreciate OIP’s responses, the Law Center stands by its analysis. Our two reports focus on the specific question of how OIP is performing its core purpose to review and rule on denials of public access. The Legislature intended that such reviews would be “expeditious.” There is no question that nearly every OIP ruling in the last three years took two years or more. Such delays do not reflect an expeditious review process.

While the Law Center will post a more detailed response to OIP’s comments on our website, we wanted to focus on questions about the motive for these reports. Specifically, we noted that OIP has described these reports as an “attack” on the agency and asked whether the Law Center is seeking to undermine the office in order to get “more clients.”

We wrote these reports to provide frustrated members of the public with more information and a voice for their concerns about delays at OIP. As described in our first report, the Law Center noticed an uptick several years ago in people complaining about OIP decisions taking longer than in the past and how the information requested was useless to them years later.

The Law Center’s goal is and always has been a healthy OIP focused on its core mission.

Such anecdotal stories, however, had little value because any single matter might be complicated or have special circumstances that explained the delay. Isolated from others who had the same frustrations and without the resources to examine whether the delays were part of a larger problem, these individuals simply tolerated a status quo that they felt powerless to fix.

We gathered information from OIP and started the analysis with no expectations as to the outcome. But what we discovered corroborated the uptick in complaints from the public about delays.

The Law Center strongly believes that access to government information serves the public interest because it allows for more informed debates about public policy.  So we published the reports — including our assumptions, methodology, and data — to let those who had been grumbling in isolation know that they were not alone.

As reflected in a 1998 legislative committee report, OIP has been “praised as being a model approach to public access to information by national freedom of information advocates.”

And as the Law Center learned in its analysis, OIP historically performed well in its responsibility to review and rule on complaints, despite having less staff and more appeals than now. We know that OIP can do better.

The Law Center is focused on OIP’s institutional methods, not attacking its leadership, and we have never questioned the competency of its director or staff. We have made recommendations, offered to assist OIP, and suggested working toward a collective solution. Those offers still stand. I would welcome the opportunity to convene with OIP and other stakeholders to work on improvements.

One day, the status quo for transparency in Hawaii will improve, and the Law Center’s mission will evolve. While our current focus is open government, the Law Center’s institutional mission statement is broader. When the day comes that OIP has an expeditious process for appeals and government agencies provide robust transparency, the Law Center will turn its attention to other community concerns that could benefit from legal support.

If you have read this far, I encourage you to review the reports and OIP’s responses. Examine the data, and run your own analysis. E-mail or call me at 531-4000 to ask questions, challenge our assumptions, or learn more.

We published this information to bring to light an issue that impacts every major topic of community engagement in Hawaii. Further public scrutiny and debate is a good thing.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Columns generally run about 800 words (yes, they can be shorter or longer) and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org.

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