Tuesday morning started like many others.

I was chatting with someone who contacted the Civil Beat Law Center’s hotline to discuss Hawaii’s open meetings law. She planned to attend a meeting of a government board in the afternoon and voiced her frustration that it was so difficult to find agendas, minutes and other information on the Internet about what the board planned to discuss.

Unlike other occasions, on Tuesday, I was able to tell the caller: “It will get better.” My optimism came from Gov. David Ige’s published list of bills that he was considering for possible veto. The Sunshine Law reform bill, House Bill 165, was not on the list.

That means, effective July 1, 2018, government boards must timely post agendas and minutes on the Internet. Members of the public may ask that agendas be e-mailed directly to them when posted. And no one will be harassed for videotaping a public meeting.

In short, our Sunshine Law will embrace modern life.

Judiciary Labor committee Vice Chair Sen Karl Rhoads with right, Chair Gil Keith Agaran. 28 feb 2017
Judiciary and Labor Committee Vice Chairman Karl Rhoads, left, and Chairman Gil Keith-Agaran helped secure passage of House Bill 165. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The most remarkable feature of HB 165 concerns public access to board packets.

Board packets are the collection of materials provided in advance to members of a government board so that they can prepare for a meeting. Some boards — the Board of Land and Natural Resources is a good example — publish copies of their board packet on the internet before a meeting.

Under current law, however, most boards require a public records request for the packet, and that request frequently is not answered until after the meeting and thus after the board has already made a decision. HB 165 gives the public a new right to obtain access to the board packet at the board’s office once the board members have been provided a copy.

The June 23 agenda for the state Board of Land and Natural Resources. BLNR

This is the first time in 30 years that the Sunshine Law has been expanded to benefit public participation and access. And it did not happen without significant effort. The ideas in HB 165 had been around for years. Concerted action by the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and others helped move it past opposition from various government agencies.

Support and attention from state Sens. Gil Keith-Agaran, Donna Mercado Kim and Karl Rhoads and state Rep. Scott Nishimoto ensured that House Bill 165 and similar bills in prior sessions did not get lost in the shuffle. And the Office of Information Practices brokered final language to alleviate lingering agency concerns. 

This is a tremendous victory for good government advocates. In the end, however, we all benefit from more open government.

Whether you have a passion for Native Hawaiian rights, preventing domestic violence, public transit or feral cats, greater public access gives you a more level playing field in discussions with government agencies and boards. Even the casually curious who depend on the news media to attend meetings or cover issues will be better informed — and will be able to more readily and independently verify that information — when government is open.

So, if you ever have the chance to speak up for more government transparency, do it.

As I prepared to leave the office on Tuesday, I received notice that the governor will be signing House Bill 165 on Thursday. Tuesday was a good day.

Editor’s note: The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest is an independent nonprofit organization created with funding from Pierre Omidyar, who is also CEO and publisher of Civil Beat.

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