A GOP lawmaker is decrying the Legislature’s lack of transparency when it comes to making public the written testimony on proposed legislation.

Rep. Cynthia Thielen is specifically annoyed about how House Water and Land Committee Chair Ryan Yamane’s handled a controversial bill Thielen said would have created a miniature version of the now-defunct Public Land Development Corp

“I’m very disturbed about the lack of open government,” Thielen said Friday. “When chairs refuse to release that testimony in a meaningful way then they control all the information.”

Following what has become common practice in the Hawaii Legislature, Yamane decided to keep the public from seeing written  testimony on bills until an hour before the hearing. But he gave it to members of his committee at 6 p.m. the day before.

Rep Cynthia Thielen during floor session. 3 may 2016.
Rep. Cynthia Thielen says the public should be able to see written testimony at the same time that legislators have access to it. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Thielen said in the past she did not receive testimony until just before the committee hearing started, a concern other lawmakers have privately expressed. While she appreciates at least having an evening to prepare for the hearing the following day, she said the public should have that same opportunity.

Yamane referred a request for comment on Thielen’s concerns to Speaker Scott Saiki.

Saiki said the House does not have a chamber-wide policy on the release of public testimony. He said it’s always been left to the discretion of the committee chairs, in part as a matter of practicality because some committees receive more testimony than others.

“It’s just logistical,” he said. “All we ask is that the chairs continually assess the best practice for their situations.”

Thielen’s concern came to a head Friday morning when the Water and Land Committee heard House Bill 2641.

The measure, introduced by Reps. Chris Todd, Sean Quinlan and Mark Nakashima, proposed establishing procedures for designating public land redevelopment districts, planning committees, district redevelopment plans and designated redevelopment district revolving funds.

It would modify public land lease restrictions and begin by establishing the Waiakea peninsula redevelopment district in Hilo, a planning committee and revolving fund until June 30, 2028.

Chair Water and Land Rep Ryan Yamane. 3 feb 2017
Rep. Ryan Yamane is getting heat from a member of his Water and Land Committee over the release of public testimony. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“The Water and Land Committee is a very problematic committee,” Thielen said. “Maybe 85 to 90 percent of the bills are fine, just sort of housekeeping measures or other things. But then you’ll get your torpedo. The PLDC or that kind of thing. Today we had a bill that was a mini-PLDC.”

The short-lived PLDC, a public-private partnership agency, was repealed in 2013 amid a public backlash over lack of transparency and accountability.

Thielen, one of five Republicans in the House, said she had similar concerns with HB 2641 lacking environmental and cultural considerations and allowing out-of-state members to serve on the redevelopment committees.

She said public testimony she received in advance of the hearing from Life of the Land, a nonprofit headed by longtime community activist Henry Curtis, helped bring these issues to her attention in time for her to raise objections during the committee hearing.

The bill was amended to focus only on the Waiakea district on the Big Island, she said.

Its next stop is the Economic Development and Business Committee, chaired by Rep. Cindy Evans.

A companion measure was also introduced in the Senate but no hearing has been scheduled.

House Legislature editorial mtg. Speaker Scott Saiki listens as his colleagues Majority Leader Au Belatti and Chair Luke answer questions.
House Speaker Scott Saiki said when to release written testimony should be “a committee by committee decsion.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Curtis said Yamane announced his new testimony-disclosure policy at the beginning of Friday’s hearing. He said the testimony would have to be filed by 3:30 p.m. the preceding day, distributed to committee members by 6 that evening and then released publicly an hour before the hearing the next day.

Curtis said Yamane explained the rationale by noting the public should be testifying on the merits of the bill, not responding to the other testimony that has been submitted. Curtis said that’s “kind of silly.”

“Life of the Land personally favors full disclosure,” Curtis said, adding that there should not be one system for lawmakers and another for the public.

Aside from having a more informed opinion of a bill by understanding where other groups are coming from ahead of time, Curtis said it’s also helpful to have the public testimony in advance for planning purposes. He said if the public testimony is clearly on one side of a bill but support is split on another bill that interests him, he will go to that hearing in an effort to have his testimony be more meaningful in hopefully influencing the outcome.

Saiki said he can see how it could work both ways.

“If for example you have a practice where testimony is released to the public earlier rather than later, you could have a situation where some testifiers may feel that withholding their testimony to the last minute may work to their advantage during the hearing, so they may present late testimony,” he said. “It just shows there is really no clear line of demarcation in how to release testimony and when. That’s why it’s a committee by committee decision.”

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