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The state agency responsible for helping the public access government-controlled information takes two to three years to resolve public complaints about lack of information on some of the biggest issues facing Hawaii.
That’s among the findings of The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest which analyzed Hawaii’s public records agency as well as others nationwide for comparison.
People who seek information from an agency or try to attend a public meeting but are denied access can file a complaint against the agency with the state Office of Information Practices. Attorneys employed by the office then review the complaint and can require the agency to reconsider.
According to the report released Monday — which is subtitled “Delays at OIP Are Staggering” — the average time to resolve complaints has quadrupled in recent years. The backlog of cases is trending upward despite a drop in new filings. And a member of the public can now expect a delay of two to three years or more for OIP to issue a decision, the report says.
“Waiting two years or more to resolve these critical questions of public access is unacceptable,” Brian Black, the law center’s executive director, said in a release Monday. “Delays at OIP impact every facet of civic discourse in Hawaii.”
The agency has cases pending on everything from requests about environmental issues and civil defense to the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation, prisons, police, government audits, nursing homes, public housing and government contracts.
“In recent years, OIP has strayed from its primary function as an expeditious and informal place to go for resolving public access disputes,” Black said. “For years, we have fielded concerns from the media and the public about increasing delays at OIP. It is time to acknowledge the severity of this problem and work swiftly and collectively toward a solution.”
The law center did a nationwide review of public records laws and how disputes over access to public information are handled in other states.
“Our review revealed that OIP is the worst among its peer agencies for delays in addressing public access disputes,” the report said.
One of the solutions Black sees is a statutory mandate to resolve cases in six months or less, as 12 states do, including Oregon, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Kentucky and Illinois.
The Legislature is considering a measure, Senate Bill 3092, that would institute a six-month deadline. It cleared the Government Operations Committee, chaired by Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, on Thursday. The bill’s next stop is the Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Brian Taniguchi, who has yet to schedule a hearing on it.
Stirling Morita, president of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Hawaii chapter, said in his testimony that there has not been this kind of slowdown in decisions on records requests for 20 years.
“In journalism, all some bureaucrat has to do to discourage publication of an article is delay the release of records,” he said. “The longer the wait the less newsworthy the subject matter may become.”
Larry Geller, a concerned citizen and blogger, said he asked OIP for help in 2014 on the release of identification of restricted use pesticide applicators. He said OIP emailed him last week to let him know that the Department of Agriculture had agreed to provide the information requested.
Geller’s concern is two-fold. One is the timeliness. He was asking for the information when there were public concerns about seed companies spraying pesticides near homes and schools on Kauai. The other concern is about precedent. He’s not convinced that the department will now just immediately release such information in the future.
OIP Executive Director Cheryl Kakazu Park, who was appointed in 2011 by former Gov. Neil Abercrombie, said in her testimony that the six-month mandate was “unrealistic.” She opposed the bill unless it provided the necessary long-term, dedicated funding and training time.
Park said the mandate could even result in OIP charging for its opinions like Minnesota does at $200 a pop.
She highlighted how the office’s budget has been slashed since its inception in 1988. In 1994, at its largest, the agency had 15 positions and a budget of $827,537, which is almost $1.4 million in today’s dollars. The office currently has 8.5 positions and a budget of $576,855.
“OIP has been doing double the work with half the resources that it had 24 years ago,” Park said.
Her top priority this legislative session, which ends May 3, is securing Gov. David Ige’s request of $115,000 in additional funding for OIP to bring its salaries up to par so it can retain its existing staff.
Park, who earns $116,988 a year according to Civil Beat’s public salary database, said five attorneys and staff have left OIP in the past few years “in large part due to its substandard salaries in comparison to those at other government agencies that would gladly hire OIP’s experts.”
The salary database shows OIP attorneys earning about $83,000 a year. Over at the Attorney General’s office, the minimum pay for a staff attorney is about $86,000 while most are at least $90,000 and well into the six-figure range.
Black isn’t convinced OIP is understaffed. The law center examined the amount of staff that similar offices in other states have on a per capita basis and found Hawaii to have the most.
In his report, Black noted that last year the law center found that under a prior OIP director there were more filings per year and less staff but major matters were resolved faster.
“OIP has the staffing to accomplish its mission as intended by the Legislature,” Black said.
Read OIP’s testimony and last annual report here. See the law center’s full report below.
The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest is an independent organization created with funding from Pierre Omidyar, who is also CEO and publisher of Civil Beat. Civil Beat Editor Patti Epler sits on its board of directors.