We devote a lot of time and much space here at Civil Beat to the issue of government transparency and accountability.
Hawaii actually has decent laws covering public information — the Sunshine Law for open meetings and the Uniform Information Practices Act that specifies what public records can and cannot be disclosed. But in practice, county and state government agencies in Hawaii are not great when it comes to following and enforcing the law.
We’ve found that it’s common for agencies to routinely reject — without good reason — requests for reports, documents and other information that should be readily available. They sometimes simply ignore legitimate inquiries from the press and the public or stall for months. Their redactions can black out whole pages.
The state Office of Information Practices is in place to help people get through the bureaucratic stalemate but, as we’ve reported several times, OIP is about two years behind on resolving appeals. Its opinions requiring disclosure are routinely ignored by agencies.
The only real recourse for journalists or the public is to go to court to force the issue. But the cost of legal action is very often a deal breaker. The public as well as the media has let the agencies off the hook because it’s just too expensive to follow through with a lawsuit.
But that is changing. The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest has been created with funding from the Hawaii Community Foundation via the Pierre and Pamela Omidyar Ohana Fund.
The law center’s primary mission is to help the media and the public get access to government information. Secondarily, the center will be a resource for nonprofit legal organizations who find situations that are too big for them to address alone, given their limited resources.
The center will advise the press — print, TV, radio, online, bloggers — and the public on government access at no cost. And that’s a big step forward for people who have felt alone and powerless when dealing with government officials.
The new law center is an independent organization that shares Civil Beat’s name, but beyond that it has no affiliation with our news site. It does share our mission of encouraging government transparency through investigative and watchdog reporting, and the center’s work is a natural extension of that goal.
In fact, the law center was born in part out of our continued frustration with the challenges in getting public records from state and county agencies, and the Legislature’s apparent indifference to the role that journalists play in holding government officials accountable.
Specifically, our investigative series earlier this year on police misconduct records, In the Name of the Law, explored the need for more disclosure of police misconduct in the same way that all other public employees’ disciplinary actions are available for public review. An OIP opinion supporting making the police records public has been ignored for years by the counties.
A legislative effort to make even a limited amount of additional information available died in the House Public Safety Committee, ostensibly because of push back from the politically powerful statewide police union. No one, it seems, wants to go up against the union.
Hawaii’s media shield law, once a model for the nation, died a much-publicized legislative death, too. The law protected journalists from having to reveal confidential sources or turn over unpublished material. But the five-year-old law expired this year and lawmakers couldn’t agree, among other things, on whether bloggers should be protected and whether reporters could be forced to reveal confidences in civil cases.
We realized something more was definitely needed. Individual news organizations or motivated citizens could fight these issues separately, as they have sometimes done with moderate success over the years. But an organization focused on the cause of government transparency seemed a better option, and one that could unite and benefit all journalists in the state — not just Civil Beat.
Enter Brian Black, a Punahou-Harvard-Cornell-educated Honolulu lawyer with a long desire to focus on public interest law. He recently left his job with the Honolulu Corporation Counsel to run the new law center.
Black is president and executive director of the center and is setting up an office downtown on Fort Street. It opened for business this week.
“I’m extremely excited about it,” Black says. “This is in many respects a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Black describes his new job as a way to make a real difference in the community, especially by looking creatively at solutions.
Black has an understated way about him and he plans to try — at least at first — a more cooperative and less confrontational approach on behalf of the law center’s clients. “That’s important because I personally don’t see people in government as being malicious,” he says. “It’s not their intent to break the law.”
But the courts are there when the law needs to be enforced and Black has no problem litigating.
Journalists throughout the state who have questions on public access or First Amendment issues will soon have a “media hotline” to call to get help. Until that’s set up, email email@example.com for assistance.
In the next few weeks, Black intends to reach out to media organizations and nonprofits to see what issues are out there. Besides individual access cases, he’d like to see if there is a broader policy or practice that might need to be addressed on a larger scale.
Here at Civil Beat we have plenty of cases that could keep Black busy.
But he’s not our attorney. He’s yours. And we hope you make good use of him.
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Patti Epler is the Editor and General Manager of Civil Beat. She's been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years, primarily in Hawaii, Alaska, Washington and Arizona. You can follow her on twitter at @PattiEpler, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 808-377-0561.