The Washington Post drew mixed reactions when it adopted a new motto earlier this year, “Democracy Dies In Darkness.”

Critics deemed it melodramatic and likened it to the title of a Batman movie.

But the slogan is intended to convey the newspaper’s dedication to uncovering the truth in the Trump era of fake news. That is a mission that Honolulu Civil Beat has embraced since we began operations more than seven years ago.  

What we have found, however, is that government agencies often go to great lengths to make it difficult to obtain public records of the public’s business.

Let’s not have more of this, please: Excerpt from a redacted Board of Water Supply document. 

First the good news. Gov. David Ige issued an executive memorandum last month to all of his department heads regarding implementation of the public records law, the Uniform Information Practices Act,

The memo lists directives that Ige says “are intended to strengthen efforts to increase access to public information, ensure that government business is conducted as openly as possible, and enhance government accountability.”

Among other things, the directives call for agencies to provide for “accurate, relevant, timely and complete records”; to establish a single point of contact for an executive agency “when practicable”;  and to disclose government records in electronic form rather than paper form “when that would reduce copying costs.”

We give the governor credit for his memo, even though it should have come sooner. The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest has been pushing Ige and the Attorney General’s Office on this for three years now.

It also does not apply to the University of Hawaii and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs — they operate autonomously from the executive branch — or to city and county governments or the judiciary.

Still, the law center’s executive director, Brian Black, called the governor’s action a positive development and urged media and good government groups to remain vigilant when dealing with state agencies on public records. 

Red Flags In Proposed Rules

But while Ige may be taking a step toward a more open and transparent government, his own agency — the state Office of Information Practices — is taking a giant step backward. 

OIP has proposed draft rules for processing public record requests. The agency administers two key laws designed to promote open and transparent government in Hawaii: UIPA, which requires open access to government records; and the Sunshine Law, which requires open public meetings.

Concerned citizens, media and good government groups, among others, are being given an opportunity to provide input on how the state handles public records requests of government agencies. 

The proposed rules it’s circulating would make it much harder for the public to access their own public records.

There is troubling language regarding under what circumstance a records request may be denied. Other provisions raise questions as to whether an agency could limit the circumstances of requests that it must respond to.

There are vague processes for incremental disclosures that might allow for indefinite delays of information, for example, and “do-nothing” rules on record collection and disclosure for research purposes appear contrary to legislative intent.

But most important, the proposal would triple the already excessive fees agencies can charge for fulfilling a records request — with no protection for requesters to ensure that costs are not inflated and no requirement that an agency prove it isn’t just quoting an exorbitant price in the hopes the requester will go away.

Citizens, organizations and reporters who regularly seek public records are often stymied by high fees as it is. It’s one thing to pay reasonable copying costs but quite another to foot the bill for government officials to look through their files and then, adding insult to injury, pay them even more to black out the information you’ve asked for.

A few years ago, Civil Beat looked at the fees issue in a series on Hawaii’s public records law and found that high costs frequently kept people from accessing records. Our review showed many agencies are already charging hundreds if not thousands of dollars to produce public records. The city of Honolulu wanted more than $11,000 just to tell us what public records requests it had received in the previous two years.

Just this week, we’ve carried stories about a number of instances involving public officials seeking to block public access to government records or public meetings:

• The Honolulu Police Department and the police union continue to try and prevent information about misconduct by officers from becoming public.

• An attorney defending a man accused of inflight behavior that prompted military fighter jets to escort an airplane wants a hearing on his mental competency and detention closed to the public.

• State lawmakers held a behind-closed-doors meeting this week at the Capitol to get briefed on a potential nuclear strike by North Korea.

• In its first meeting since the Hawaii Legislature approved a $2.4 billion bailout for Honolulu rail, the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation’s board met for hours in executive session to discuss legal issues surrounding the rail bailout bill, as well as financing issues.

This is nonsense.

The state should be making it easier, not harder, for citizens to be informed about and involved in the public process.

Read the proposed rules, please, and let OIP know where you stand.

The  OIP’s proposal requires Ige’s approval. Make sure he knows that the public does indeed want his administration to abide by the public records law and conduct the public’s business “as openly as possible.”

Executive Memorandum On Implementation Of The UIPA, Aug. 25:

OIP Proposed Draft Rules For The UIPA, Sept. 1:

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