Hawaii Gov. David Ige is refusing to release information about who comes to see him at the governor’s office, including lobbyists and other people seeking to influence public policy.
The governor’s office does not keep an official visitor log documenting the people and groups that meet with Ige.
Ige’s public calendar only lists the governor’s public appearances. And recently the months of May and June were almost completely blank, with the resumption of more calendar entries coinciding with a follow-up Civil Beat inquiry in late June.
Civil Beat asked for the records in an effort to figure out who might be seeking to sway the governor over the last few months as he made decisions about which pieces of legislation he would sign into law and which ones he would veto.
Gov. David Ige’s staff refuses to release records detailing his visitors. He says says he doesn’t want to discourage them from coming to see him.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Cindy McMillan, communications director for the governor, said that while staffing problems may be responsible for the inconsistent public calendar information, there is no visitor log because Ige does not want to discourage visitors by revealing them publicly.
“The governor has always said that he feels it’s important for people to be comfortable coming to see him,” McMillan said, “and that he believes that if he released all of his calendar appointments, that people would cease to feel comfortable coming to visit him.”
“He prefers that people come visit with him, rather than stay away.”
McMillan said that Ige’s office has no plans to create and release a visitor log.
Lack Of Transparency Criticized
Sandy Ma, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii — a nonprofit that advocates for good government practices and greater government accountability — said she was not aware that Ige did not keep a visitor log, but she thinks his failure to record and release this information raises serious transparency concerns.
Ma said that Hawaii voters have a right to know how Ige and other elected officials are using their taxpayer money and time in office, particularly if special interest groups and lobbyists are meeting with the governor.
As for McMillan’s and the governor’s reasoning, Ma said that she “did not know what to make of their explanation” and that this was the first time she had heard officials use this argument.
It’s a safe bet that the governor is visited by many lobbyists and others trying to influence public policy.
PF Bentley/Civil Beat
“I think people will take the opportunity to speak with the governor if their issues are pressing enough,” Ma said. “And I think it’s very interesting that (McMillan) would think people would be afraid to speak with the governor.”
“If I had the opportunity to speak with the governor, I would be happy to say I spoke with the governor and tell other people,” Ma said. “I wouldn’t be ashamed of it.”
Colin Moore, an associate professor of political science and director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii, said he understood the governor’s reasoning and recognized the desire to keep some meetings out of the public eye.
“Sometimes it can just be useful in trying to crack deals and trying to reach out to a variety of different groups and constituencies and people who might not otherwise want to meet with you,” Moore said, “because they don’t want the public to know that they’ve had these meetings with the governor.”
However, Moore said that keeping and releasing a visitor log should be standard practice not only because government should strive to be as transparent as possible, but also because they would give the public a glimpse of which groups have the most influence over its elected officials.
“You can’t say for certain that this interest group influenced somebody,” Moore said, “but at least you know they had a seat at the table so you can infer that maybe they did have some influence.”
“Being transparent about what meetings you’re taking at least allows the public to know ‘Okay, so who does have influence?’ You don’t just have to guess.”
What About Other Politicians?
Ige is not the first Hawaii governor to not keep visitor records.
Bruce Coppa, who served as chief of staff for former Gov. Neil Abercrombie, said that Abercrombie’s office did not keep an official visitor log either, although there was a voluntary guestbook in the waiting room.
There is little to no data available on the proportion of governors in other states who release their visitor logs or calendar appointments.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s calendar is publicly available online and details her daily appointments to the minute, including public events and personal meetings.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s visitor records are less accessible — redacted versions of his daily calendar are available to reporters upon request.
President Donald Trump made headlines in 2017 by refusing to continue President Barack Obama’s practice of releasing visitor logs.
But while Trump cited privacy and national security concerns as reasons for withholding his visitor records, Ige’s reasoning focuses more on making visitors feel comfortable.
In spite of that, Moore said both Ige and Trump are in the wrong for forsaking transparency within their administrations to address their separate concerns.
“That’s why the visitor logs (should be) maintained, is that we think the public should know who the chief executive of the state or the president of the United States is meeting with because it’s good to know who’s having an influence on his positions,” Moore said.
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Joel Lau is a Civil Beat summer news intern. He grew up on Oahu and graduated from Hawaii Baptist Academy.
He is a student at Boston University, majoring in journalism and political science, and plans to return there for his sophomore year in September. Follow him on Twitter @JoelLau808.