What is it about transparency, sunshine, and accountability top officials of the University of Hawaii don’t understand?

Just about everything, it seems.

The latest demonstration of “watch what they do, not what they say” came a few days ago when the Star-Advertiser reported on inventory control issues flagged by an internal audit of the UH facilities management office.

The audit was presented to and discussed at some length by the Board of Regents in a May 25, 2012 committee meeting, but the university refused to make it public until last week, about eight months later, the Star-Advertiser reported. The final version of the audit was essentially unchanged from the earlier “draft,” the newspaper noted.

Lynne Waters, Associate Vice President for External Affairs and University Relations, told the newspaper the draft report had not been released earlier because it needed proofreading and “other finishing touches” before it could be made public.

What a ridiculously lame excuse for secrecy. Waters and other UH officials seem to be casually thumbing their noses at the state’s public records law. The basic presumption is that government records are public: “All government records are open to public inspection unless access is restricted or closed by law.”

Unfortunately, the university’s failure to promptly disclose the audit when originally requested is just another in a long string of administrative decisions that consistently err on the side of secrecy.

What’s even more galling is that the habit of secrecy prevails even though transparency has become a much-used buzzword in UH administrative circles since Senator Donna Kim and her special committee on accountability so thoroughly ripped into President M.R.C. Greenwood’s attempts to restrict access to information and documents related to last summer’s failed Stevie Wonder concert.

Repeated questions about the university’s lack of transparency raised during the extended Senate hearings prompted Greenwood to reaffirm a commitment to openness.

At the end of her Senate testimony, Greenwood said: “I’ve been humbled by this episode…we are committed to transparency. We do turn over documents when we are asked for them.”

That was in September 2012, about the time the Star-Advertiser made its request for a copy of the facilities management audit. The commitment referred to by Greenwood wasn’t much in evidence. This audit was not turned over when requested.

The Senate committee’s report and recommendations were released in November 2012 and, once again, lack of transparency and multiple failures to comply with the public records law were highlighted.

The committee concluded university officials “improperly redacted documents…in violation of Hawaii’s Open Records Law,” including removing names or other information from public documents which “should not have been redacted at all,” and then were unable to provide “sufficient justification” for the deletions.

In addition, the committee pointed to several instances in which the Board of Regents may have violated provisions of the Sunshine Law by holding discussions and making decisions outside of public meetings.

When the Board of Regents voted to retain Greenwood as president, also in November 2012, they gave a nod to the Senate findings by underscoring the critical need for “improved communication and transparency within the University’s leadership,” according to a statement released at the time.

And in December 2012, when the Board of Regents responded to the report and recommendations of Senator Kim’s committee, sunshine and transparency were again front and center.

The BOR and President Greenwood again stated their intention to review university policies and assure they not only meet the legal requirements of the state’s open meeting and public records laws, but also comply with the spirit of the law as well.

Yet while the key university players keep saying they are all for transparency, the handling of this facilities management audit tells a very different story.

So how are we to understand this substantial gap between the rhetoric and reality? Are Greenwood and the regents really committed to a more transparent and responsive university system? Are we to believe they are unable to control key parts of the bureaucracy that continue to practice secrecy? Are we seeing an inability of Greenwood’s administration to gain compliance with policies more favorable to openness and transparency, or merely a cynical and practiced duplicity at the very top?

I’m troubled by the ambiguity, and I hope members of the Senate will carefully scrutinize the university’s reported progress in implementing the promised shift towards transparency. It’s time to make sure the UH system’s actual information practices are consistent with the rhetorical “commitment” to sunshine.