The simple idea behind “public records” is that they are the public’s records, held by government agencies until a member of the public wants to see one.

But too often — and particularly in some offices of the City and County of Honolulu — public records are shared only suspiciously and grudgingly via a bureaucratic process often made harder than necessary and sometimes loaded with exorbitant costs. Some city officials try to deter the public from accessing records by overestimating the cost and taking so long to eventually produce the records that they become meaningless.

Public records such as these ought to be accessible by the public for the asking, not held hostage by reluctant bureaucrats in exchange for exorbitant costs.

Public records ought to be accessible by the public for the asking, not held hostage by reluctant bureaucrats in exchange for exorbitant costs.

Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

It’s certainly not a phenomenon limited to Honolulu. But Oahu residents are fortunate that a process currently underway allows them to take steps to put the “public” back in “public records.”

As part of its once-a-decade review of the entire City Charter, the Honolulu Charter Commission solicited ideas from the public for revisions and received 150 proposals by the Oct. 31 deadline.

Four of those proposals, submitted by the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest in consultation with local good-government groups and media outlets, aim to ensure the public has better access to government records and public meetings. The proposals would:

• Eliminate fees for requesters who can show the records are being requested in the public interest and will be shared widely;

• Allow anyone to request public records rather than restricting requests only to citizens;

• Outline what city/county employees are to do when they get a records request, with an emphasis on helping the requester to access the records in question;

• Require city boards and commissions to send electronic meeting notices and post their meeting agendas and minutes online.

Not exactly revolutionary ideas, but they would make an enormous difference in the necessary flow of information on this island.

As anyone who has sought public documents in Honolulu knows, the fees charged by the city are often arbitrary and frequently exorbitant. Civil Beat is a frequent requester of public records and in a special report in 2013 examined the problems associated with high costs by simply asking for copies of public records request to see what people had been charged.

While many state agencies either didn’t charge us anything or requested reasonable fees, the City and County of Honolulu demanded more than $11,000 just to produce the one-page request forms people are asked to file.

Those kinds of charges are hardly limited to the Civil Beat newsroom. We’ve reported on similar experiences with other news outlets, as well as numerous nonprofits and other civic organizations.

Making records outrageously expensive and making requesters wait for unreasonable periods of time are unacceptable. Especially so under Hawaii’s public records law, which makes it clear that the public has a right — really a duty — to oversee how the public’s business is done.

It’s worth quoting the beginning of Hawaii’s public records law, called the Uniform Information Practices Act. It goes like this:

In a democracy, the people are vested with the ultimate decision-making power. Government agencies exist to aid the people in the formation and conduct of public policy. Opening up the government processes to public scrutiny and participation is the only viable and reasonable method of protecting the public’s interest. Therefore the legislature declares that it is the policy of this State that the formation and conduct of public policy — the discussions, deliberations, decisions, and action of government agencies — shall be conducted as openly as possible.

Charging excessive fees for legitimate public interest research and stalling or blocking the release of information because government employees say they don’t know how to respond are simply unacceptable under our law.

The Charter Commission has a real opportunity here to take the power to deny access away from the politicians who are wielding it so unfairly and deliberately. Put the power back in the hands of the people, as the Legislature intended.

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