It shouldn’t take three years for people to know whether important government information is public or whether they can be shut out of a seemingly public meeting.

Yet that’s how long it’s been taking the state Office of Information Practices to resolve requests for an opinion on issues of utmost importance to Hawaii.

The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest recently released its second annual report documenting what it called “staggering delays” by OIP when it comes to helping people who have been turned away by a state or county agency. OIP is supposed to review the problem and, if the agency is wrong, tell it to release the document or provide the public access.

Last year, in its 2017 report, the law center looked back over the past 10 years and concluded that OIP has more than quadrupled the time it takes to issue an opinion on “major matters” — disputes resolving everything from pesticide reports to Honolulu rail records to documents involving police, prisons and public housing, to name a few.

The law center reported that under each of the three previous OIP directors it took about 90 days to issue an opinion on substantive matters. But under current director Cheryl Kakazu Park that number had grown to an astonishing 464 days on average by 2017.

This year, in its 2018 report, the law center concludes that the delays have gotten even worse.

In 2014, Larry Geller, a local blogger and activist, was turned down by the state when he asked for information about where seed companies were spraying restricted-use pesticides. At the time this was a big deal on Kauai in particular. He needed the information then.

More than three years later he was still waiting for OIP to get back to him. In fact, it was just a couple weeks ago that OIP told him the state has decided to finally release the records he wanted.

“Nearly every major topic of concern in Hawaii is reflected in OIP’s backlog,” the law center found in the 2018 report. “But we should not have to wait more than three years to find out what information is accessible in pesticides reports or other government records.”

This year, in an effort to help find a solution, the law center reviewed similar public access agencies throughout the country. Turns out Hawaii is the worst in the nation when it comes to the delay in resolving questions of public access in a timely fashion.

You heard that right: we are the worst. And that is simply unacceptable.

People need accurate information in order to make good decisions on public issues. And they need it when the decision needs to be made — not three years later.

Park, besides thrashing the law center for what she called a flawed, inaccurate and misleading report (she didn’t like last year’s either), laid much of the blame for the whopping amount of time it takes her agency to decide whether something should be public or not on lack of staff. And staff, she says, are bailing right and left because they don’t get paid as much as other government attorneys.

Brian Black, who heads the law center, says in fact Hawaii’s OIP has a larger staff, per capita, then any other state. So he doesn’t think the problem is one of lack of staffing.

When it comes to pay, he agrees that OIP lawyers are getting shortchanged compared to other public attorneys. In his 2017 report, Black noted that OIP attorneys were making 24 percent less than the Honolulu Corporation Counsel lawyers. And last year he urged the Legislature to bolster pay for OIP.

This year, Gov. David Ige is asking the Legislature for an increase for OIP of $115,000 to up the pay for the eight attorneys and staff who work there. We think that’s a very good idea and would encourage lawmakers to grant that budget request.

But we also want the Legislature to pass Senate Bill 3092, which would mandate that OIP take no longer than six months to issue decisions on substantive issues. As the law center report found, 12 states have a six-month deadline for public access questions to be resolved.

Black calls that a simple solution. Park is, of course, digging in her heels.

But lawmakers need only look at Park’s track record compared to her three predecessors to realize this is an agency that left to its own devices will just continue to get worse.

You heard that right: we are the worst. And that is simply unacceptable.

Park has been running OIP since 2011. That’s when she was appointed by then-Gov. Neil Abercrombie to replace Cathy Takase (a director whose agency took on average 90 days, not 464, to issue a substantive decision.)

Abercrombie fired Takase when she told the governor he needed to release the names of judicial nominees. Abercrombie, who was often no friend of public information, canned Takase, installed Park and fought the judicial nominee case in court which ultimately told him the same thing Takase had already told him.

Correction: An earlier version of the piece said the Hawaii Supreme Court ultimately decided the case. In fact the high court only ruled on attorneys fees and it was the lower court that ordered the release of the names.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that public access to government information has suffered under Park’s reign. As Black notes in the 2017 law center report: “Access delayed is access denied.”

Ige could, of course, step in and take a much stronger hand on the public’s behalf with Park and OIP. Other states also have citizens commissions that oversee their versions of OIP.

But a good start would be the answer that’s already on the table. Pass SB 3092. The bill has cleared one committee and is awaiting a hearing in Senate Judiciary.

It shouldn’t take longer than six months for Park and her staff to answer an initial question on Hawaii’s public records and open meetings laws.

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.

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