The Honolulu City Council apparently violated the state’s open meetings law Wednesday by adding a last-minute bill to its agenda.
Councilman Trevor Ozawa introduced Bill 56 on Tuesday to regulate bike-sharing programs. At the behest of Chairman Ernie Martin, the council voted unanimously to hear and tentatively approve the bill the next day — with Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi absent.
Martin told reporters after the meeting that the public would still have plenty of opportunity to testify later and noted that few people showed up to speak at the meeting.
“That’s not an excuse,” said Brian Black, head of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest. “That’s actually more of a reflection … of the fact that there was not sufficient notice of at least this issue to give people the opportunity to testify.
Later Wednesday, Ozawa opted to introduce a similar bill that would be up for first reading at the Aug. 15 council meeting.
No ‘Minor’ Bills
The Sunshine Law requires that boards must notify the public of all items on an upcoming meeting at least six days in advance.
Exceptions can be made if a supermajority agrees to hear the item, and it is not of “reasonably major importance” and would not affect a significant number of people, said Office of Information Practices attorney Jennifer Brooks.
“No items that we discuss are minor,” Martin said when asked about that provision of the law.
Most council meetings are held in Honolulu Hale, but Wednesday’s meeting was at Kapolei Hale.
First reading is essentially a procedural courtesy to the introducer of the bill, Martin said, that allows bills to move on to a committee to be heard further.
Martin, who is running for Congress, said he could not point to a portion of the Sunshine Law that justified the addition and deferred more specific questions to his office.
An emailed statement from Martin’s office said that Bill 56 wouldn’t immediately affect anyone “…other than perhaps the Council, some testifiers, and Clerk’s Office staff.”
Still, the statement acknowledged the bill would likely be viewed as being “of reasonably major importance.”
OIP has not definitively ruled on whether the council can bump bills up for an initial reading onto the council agenda, according to the statement.
Ozawa said he had hoped Bill 56 would be heard in tandem with Bill 55, another of his measures that would establish a pilot program for bike-sharing.
Ozawa has expressed interest in finding a way for companies like Lime, the scooter-sharing company, to succeed in Honolulu, despite the fact that the city has impounded the scooters.
Ozawa said he wanted the bills heard quickly because the city has recently been flooded with inquiries from bike-sharing and other shared transportation companies, he said.
“This information spreads so quickly in (the multimodal transportation) community,” Ozawa said. “… We’re getting international inquiries, national inquiries, local inquiries.”
A Repeat Issue?
Brooks of OIP said she could not say whether the council had violated state law without contacting the council first.
OIP considers the alleged violation and whether there has been an attempt to rectify it when issuing an opinion, Brooks said.
“I can certainly see why that item would raise concerns,” Brooks said. “The bike-sharing program is something that is of concern to many people.”
Natalie Iwasa, a Hawaii Kai Neighborhood Board member who regularly attends council meetings, said she’s observed council members attempt to circumvent the Sunshine Law for years. It seems to be happening more often lately, she said, and with issues that have broad public interest.
Iwasa, who is running for Ozawa’s District 4 council post in the Aug. 11 primary, said she has reached out to the OIP about her concerns.
“Regardless if they try to fix it later with another hearing (or deferral) … they’re shutting out public participation and that’s the issue,” Iwasa said.
Black of the law center said he agreed with Martin’s assertion that nothing the council does is “minor.”
“They shouldn’t be amending their agenda at the last minute and circumvent public participation and notice,” Black said.
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