What if county council members could meet wherever they wish, discuss official business and not let the public know in advance?
Imagine a tourism group hosting a conference at the Honolulu Convention Center that costs $100 to attend — and elected county reps are inside debating property taxes for hotels.
That’s the type of situation that critics are concerned will arise if state lawmakers carve out the loophole in the Sunshine Law that Maui County Council Chair Gladys Baisa and some of her colleagues want.
She has been lobbying the Legislature this session to create an exception in the law that currently limits how many council members can attend informational presentations or other events open to the public that fall outside of their regular meetings.
Currently, if there are enough council members at the same place to form a quorum, they risk violating the Sunshine Law. So if a council has nine members, no more than four can attend an event together or meet to discuss official business. The purpose of the law is to restrict council members’ interaction with each other outside of their regular meetings so the decision-making is done on the floor instead of privately.
Baisa believes allowing two or more members to attend these functions and discuss council business will improve the relationships between the public and elected officials while broadening access to educational opportunities.
“Abusive practices would be legalized if the bill became law,” Douglas Meller of the League of Women Voters told lawmakers in February.
He gave an example of a developer being able to host a meeting open to the public to “educate” a county council about his pending zoning application.
House Bill 2139 is up for a key vote Tuesday in the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Clayton Hee. It was unclear Monday what he planned to do with the legislation — more amendments, defer it indefinitely or pass as is.
UPDATE The Judiciary Committee voted unanimously Tuesday to pass HB 2139 unamended. It’s now headed to a vote before the full Senate.
The Public Safety Committee, chaired by Sen. Will Espero, had tightened up the bill after it crossed over from the House last month, inserting requirements aimed at protecting the public while retaining the original intent.
The latest draft allows any number of county council members to attend and hold a limited public meeting to discuss council business as the guest of a board or community group holding its own meeting. They have to videotape the meeting, which must be held in Hawaii, and can’t go to a meeting hosted by the same group more than once per month.
The bill was also amended to force the councils to give the public at least six days advance notice of the meeting, which is what the Sunshine Law requires for regular council meetings.
It’s unclear, however, if the councils would also have to post agendas for these meetings, which could leave the public in the dark about what’s up for discussion.
One section of the bill says the notice of the limited meeting “may include an agenda.” But a different section says the council has to follow the Sunshine Law when it comes to noticing the meeting, which must include an agenda.
The latest draft of the bill also specifically forbids councils from making any decisions at these so-called limited meetings or otherwise circumventing the spirit of the Sunshine Law.
In its current form, the law would sunset in 2018, so the Legislature would have to revisit the issue after seeing how well it has worked — or hasn’t.