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Most days, Civil Beat’s presence at Honolulu Hale is me and my laptop, squarely perched on one of two benches on the second and third floors. City workers joke that these are my “offices,” and people stop by to chat with me.
One department director took a colleague to the second-floor bench for an introduction, knowing I’d be there. The mayor likes to jokingly sneak past me before stopping to catch up. Ann Kobayashi confessed last week that she misses me when I’m not in my familiar spot. Others, I’m certain, would prefer I wasn’t always lurking around.
Still, I was surprised Friday when I was asked to leave. It’s furlough Friday, but there’s still city business being conducted. A day off for some city workers shouldn’t shut down the press’ watchdog role.
Honolulu is my beat, and reporting thoroughly the issues with which the city deals requires me to be there — not just for press conferences, not just for City Council and committee meetings — but as much as possible.
There was a time not so long ago that multiple reporters from multiple TV stations and newspapers camped out at Honolulu Hale the way I do. Most days now, it’s just me.
But on Friday, security supervisor Garrett Ogawa said that members of the public aren’t allowed in unless there are public meetings — like committee meetings — or unless they have pre-arranged appointments (like the dozens of boisterous school children who were running around the first floor admiring Christmas decorations).
I had signed in. I had a visitor pass. But I didn’t have authorization to be there from a specific city worker.
“The mayor just has meetings with Cabinet-level (officials),” Ogawa told Civil Beat. “There’s nothing happening for a newspaper to print.”
When I told him that wasn’t the case — officials from the Army Corps of Engineers met with the mayor in his office this morning, and a work-force investment meeting was just getting under way in the mayor’s conference room as we spoke — Ogawa said he wasn’t privy to those meetings. Ogawa then pointed out that there weren’t any other reporters around.
Ogawa and his staff were respectful, and I agreed to leave in an effort to be respectful in return. Civil Beat has since been in touch with the mayor’s office and City Council Chairman Nestor Garcia’s office to request credentials for future furlough Fridays. I’m waiting to hear back. The next city furlough day is Jan. 14.
It’s true that furlough Fridays are quieter than other days, but there’s still city work going on.
Most of the newsmakers aren’t furloughed: The mayor and his staff are working. City council members come and go. The administrative assistants in their offices are there answering phones. There are people coming to meet with the mayor, and other meetings.
The idea that a reporter can’t sit outside and ask for comment when a meeting ends runs counter to government transparency.
Mayor Peter Carlisle has said improving transparency is one of his priorities, though he hasn’t yet outlined any specifics on how he’ll do so. Carlisle has said how much he despises city furloughs, but hasn’t yet taken action to back up that sentiment and end them. A decision by the mayor to open the building to reporters on furlough days would represent a commitment to transparency, and a symbolic stand against furloughs.
Until then, we’ll just find a new bench, outside the doors to Honolulu Hale.
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