Here is the fundamental question every government employee, including politicians, and every journalist should be able to easily answer: Who do you work for?
Not the agency, not the media company, not the immediate supervisor. These people should be able to quickly identify and show proof of their allegiance to their primary and primal stakeholders, which is all of you, citizens.
You pay their salaries with tax funds and audience attention. The in-between parts of that relationship, such as the news station or the political party or the government office, is just a vessel within which these people perform that valued service of gathering and sharing public information, maintaining critical societal infrastructure, keeping our communities safe, and so on. They do this for you, because without you, there is no need for them.
A spate of local news stories in recent weeks, though, demonstrates how upside down our relationships have become in some respects with our government, like getting entangled with an abusive partner, who repeatedly blackens our eyes but never gets arrested for it, because we continue to protect them and their bad behaviors.
The state Office of Information Practices, for example, recently engaged in a press-release war with the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, over the procedures, protocols and products of the OIP. The law center is separate from but supported by the same people as Civil Beat, including president and founder Pierre Omidyar, and over the years, many of Civil Beat’s stories have become intertwined with the OIP’s inefficient and ineffective system, delaying or diffusing timely and critical public discourse.
A quick summary of the situation: Any government employee who doesn’t want to release public information – for whatever reason, including nefarious or completely unfounded ones – can withhold it. The requester of that information has limited recourse, usually to either file a lawsuit or submit a complaint to the OIP. Most people don’t have the resources or the patience to file a lawsuit, so they either give up or end up standing in the imposing OIP line, which makes the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles’ queues look like they are operating with the efficiency of an Amazon.com factory.
My single experience with OIP has been written about before, but here’s what you really need to know: I asked for basic information from the state’s Sheriff’s Division about who it employed. This is information that state law plainly and clearly requires to be provided (since, you know, we’re paying to employ these people, so we should be able to know who we are employing, right?). One of the state’s primary law enforcement agencies chose to not follow the law and release that information to me when I asked for it.
So I was told I could either file a lawsuit or an OIP complaint. I chose the OIP route, and I’ve been waiting now 683 days (almost two years) for the decision, which, by the way, is nonbinding (so even with an OIP ruling in my favor, the Sheriff’s Office still can decline to release the information, and we could be headed to court anyway).
Only in OIP director Cheryl Kakazu Park’s “staggeringly misleading” characterization of the OIP is it functioning as it should. In her press release, she goes to great lengths to defend and justify the current system, which is underfunded and understaffed, but I have to wonder how much of that operational duress is primarily due to its mismanagement and the choices it makes in processing complaints.
I’ve tried to reach OIP lawyers and Park multiple times over the past two years to talk to them about this situation, including requesting an interview with Park by phone and email several times last week for this column. I received in response an email from the OIP office sharing with me the “What’s New: Keeping ‘em Honest – The Facts Matter” press release and then a second email, from Park, right before my deadline, suggesting I read what she’s already written but declining to take my call.
Since I can’t get anyone at OIP to talk or listen, I’ll share my idea with you: OIP buys a gigantic metal stamper, engraved with the words “Release all public information to the public.” It buys a ton of green-ink stamp pads, and it whizzes through its stack of complaints, inscribing in big green letters on each one what should be obvious already to everyone involved. This is public information, so free it for public consumption.
Trust us to do appropriate public business with it. We don’t need public censors. We also don’t hire and pay these people to keep information from us, to be our filters of what we should and shouldn’t know, like overlord parental figures. We hire and pay them to collect and provide information to us.
This backward mentality isn’t just shown by OIP and Park, though.
We also re-learned and re-emphasized this month just how secretive, dysfunctional and unaccountable various “semi-autonomous” agencies throughout the state are, including the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation and the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
You, through taxes diverted to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, for example, pay President and CEO George Szigeti more than $440,000 a year, which is more than double what you pay the governor of the entire state. Yet you also – through letting him and his cronies operate in the ways that they do, grossly denounced this month by a state auditor – enable this wildly unregulated and unaccountable behavior to happen through inaction and indifference.
Journalists, who have their own set of problems I will cover in another column soon, are putting this information in your hands. So what are you going to do about it? I’d usually suggest contacting your honest, open and hardworking local politicians. But I also learned this month that the state House’s Finance, Judiciary and Transportation committees this year are not allowing their hearings to be recorded and broadcast on public-access television.
Why don’t they want you to observe them while they do their public-servant jobs? Maybe because they don’t want you to ever realize who they really are working for.
Are you going to keep taking that sort of abuse? You don’t have to fix everything. But you can start somewhere, such as with OIP and demanding that our public information is more freely available to the public.
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Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.