Facebook and Twitter could become the virtual town square for spirited public debate if the state’s public information watchdog agency has its way.

The Office of Public Information Practices has submitted two legislative proposals to Gov. Neil Abercrombie to be included in his administration’s package for the coming session, which begins next week.

One would revamp the state’s Sunshine Law in several ways, including allowing members of boards and commissions to maintain public social media accounts. If a few of them wanted to discuss an issue openly they could, and the public could also participate through the usual comments and feedback.

The key would be in the number of board members participating at any one time — the proposal would limit the discussions to “less than a quorum” — and in the transparency. The board members would have to allow public access to their accounts and discussions of board business would have to live online indefinitely.

Now, the law generally prohibits board members from discussing board business outside of a meeting of their own board. The OIP proposal says there is no “permitted interaction” that would allow more than two board members to go on Facebook or Twitter or other public social media forum and talk about policy issues even though doing so would make the debate “more accessible to more people.”

“The whole idea is to enhance public participation and communication,” said OIP Director Cheryl Kakazu Park.

The OIP wants to expand opportunities for board members to engage the public in other ways, too. Another proposed change to the Sunshine Law would allow “less than a quorum” of members to attend other public meetings or events where issues of interest to them are being discussed. The number that triggers a quorum varies from board to board, the Honolulu City Council has nine members, for instance, so a quorum would be five.

“We want to start allowing the officials to go out to the public instead of waiting for the public to come to your meeting,” Park told Civil Beat.

The OIP proposal likens the suggested change to a similar amendment to the Neighborhood Board law in 2008. That allowed those board members to participate in meetings and presentations before other entities. OIP’s proposal would allow boards covered by the Sunshine Law to attend legislative hearings, community meetings and other boards’ meetings, among others.

OIP says the amendment would improve the boards’ performance by allowing individual members to bring back “a fuller understanding of perspectives” to the full board.

The OIP proposal also would require officials meeting notices of state boards to be electronically filed on the state’s calendar. Earlier this year, Civil Beat reported that it was often difficult to obtain information about public meetings because notices were only required to be filed with the Lt. Governor’s office and copies were posted on bulletin boards at the state Capitol. Gov. Neil Abercrombie issued an executive order requiring that meetings be posted electronically to the state calendar, and this proposal would put that in statute.

The Sunshine Law was enacted in 1975, “long before the widespread use of the Internet and electronic devices,” the OIP proposal says.

All of OIP’s proposals are aimed at modernizing the law and enhancing the flow of public information, Park said.

“It’s really to expand the public’s ability to participate in government,” she said.

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