A bitter squabble at the Manoa Neighborhood Board is casting a shadow on the Sunshine Law, the state’s open meeting law.

The dispute highlights a problem that has cropped up on other boards as well, as members grapple with open meeting rules that determine who is permitted to speak with who and under what terms. In some cases, Sunshine Law disputes have become political tools by opponents.

The public clash between two Manoa Board rivals, Ellen Watson and Dylan Armstrong, will be discussed at the Honolulu Neighborhood Commission on Nov. 25, with a date for a hearing to be set at that time.

In August and September, Watson and Armstrong vied against each other in a hard-fought battle for the board chairmanship. In August, neither got enough votes to defeat the other.

Dylan Armstrong, chair of the Manoa Neighborhood Board
Dylan Armstrong won a tight race for  chairmanship of the Manoa board but is the subject of a Neighborhood Commission complaint by Ellen Watson. Honolulu Neighborhood Commission

But in September, Armstrong defeated Watson 9 to 3 and became the Manoa Neighborhood Board chairman.

Watson filed a complaint on Aug. 12 with the city’s Neighborhood Commission against Armstrong, alleging he had violated the Sunshine Law when he inappropriately sent personal letters to elected officials that included a draft version of a board memo.

In his response to the complaint, Armstrong disputed Watson’s allegations, and said the letter was clearly marked as his personal opinion. He said Watson has a fundamental misunderstanding of the Neighborhood Board System and was attempting to silence members who voice opinions contrary to hers.

The letters contained differing opinions on the Ala Wai Canal flood control project, with the board voting 11 to 0 for a letter that asked the city and state to stop the project, while Armstrong asked for more information about the project to better protect public health and safety.

When the dispute burst into the open at a board meeting in August, neighborhood residents were perplexed and wondered aloud if Armstrong’s First Amendment rights were being violated or whether their own rights were being violated because the disputed letters weren’t shared with the public.

Audience member Vanessa Distajo, vice president of the Manoa branch of The Outdoor Circle, said it felt like a First Amendment violation and compared the board’s discussion to “living in a fascist state.” Others questioned why a letter that might cause disciplinary action was not openly shared with all the board members.

Concerns On Other Boards

Manoa residents aren’t the only ones who have puzzled over the state’s open meetings law.

“The underlying purpose is to provide the public with meaningful notice and the opportunity to participate in public meetings of government boards,” said Brian Black, executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, which advocates for open records.

The Sunshine Law has also presented management complications for Oahu’s 33 neighborhood boards, where members serve as volunteers in organizations that were created to be mostly public forums for residents and serve only in an advisory capacity to elected officials.

“It’s an extremely complicated law that’s developed over the years,” Black said. “It’s become complicated enough and technical enough that board members just aren’t sure where to draw the line on when and who they can speak to and what’s allowed and what’s not.

Ellen Watson is a long-time Manoa Board member
Longtime Manoa board member Ellen Watson has been engaged in a dispute with a political rival, Dylan Armstrong. Honolulu Neighborhood Commission

“Government attorneys and others interpreting the law provide the most risk-averse interpretation, which often means the people subject to the law — board members — are not allowed to do something, or aren’t allowed to speak to a particular person, or aren’t allowed to speak among themselves. That can lead to some frustration among board members.”

Black said many of the issues that come up are easy to resolve if people are committed to trying to make the process work properly.

Neighborhood boards typically meet once a month, usually for about two hours. Because of the Sunshine Law, board members are not allowed to speak about matters they are considering outside the meetings in any groups larger than two individuals. It requires special action and a vote to gain permission to meet in groups of three or more.

Meanwhile, the churn among board membership, as people move away or drop out of participation, means new people are constantly learning the ropes, fearful of making a mistake. That leaves plenty of room for confusion or obfuscation.

Another recent dispute over permissible communication involved the Makiki/Lower Punchbowl/Tantalus Neighborhood Board. In recent years, board members and residents said they were told that only the board chairman at the time, John Steelquist, was authorized to talk to reporters or to the public.

“There was a vagueness as to whether we could speak representing ourselves as members of the board” to the public or reporters, said the current chair, Ian Ross.

Another board member, Nathan Char, said he was actively discouraged from speaking with the public or reporters.

Dave Watase, an activist who opposes the Ala Wai flood control project, said he was told by two Makiki board members that he was not allowed to contact individual board members, only Steelquist. He said he was told he would be reported to the Neighborhood Commission, presumably for disciplinary action, if he sent any further emails.

“I personally think the Sunshine Law hinders the effectiveness of the neighborhood boards and I would favor loosening up those rules,” Watase said. “I think it is too strict given the neighborhood board is only advisory in nature and really does not hold any decision-making on public funds.”

Chills The Discussion?

Ben Rotter, former chair of the Manoa Neighborhood Board, said that the Sunshine Law has a lot of ambiguities that pose roadblocks to getting things done. He said that board meetings sometimes end up consumed with mundane details that people are afraid to discuss outside the meetings for fear of running afoul of it.

“The Sunshine Law is weird,” he said. “It’s another thing that adds complexity. As long as I’ve been on the board, people have had trouble understanding the spirit and letter of the law.”

The Manoa Neighborhood Board meets at Noelani Elementary
The cafeteria at Noelani Elementary serves as the monthly meeting place of the Manoa Neighborhood Board. Kirstin Downey/Civil Beat

In the Manoa case, the dispute over the Ala Wai letters overshadowed other board matters.

In the interview, Watson said she was merely seeking clarification from the commission as to whether Armstrong’s actions were permissible or not. She said Armstrong inappropriately included a draft version of the board’s letter.

“I just want them to deal with it,” Watson said in an interview. “They need to be the shepherd over the sheep.”

Armstrong fixed the problem by sending the correct version of the board letter. In the interview, Armstrong said he had clearly labeled his letter his personal opinion and called Watson’s complaint “exceedingly petty.”

One issue that sat on a back burner at both board meetings during this dispute involved a grove of trees that would be cut down and replanted with young trees to make way for a new building at Noelani Elementary in Manoa. Hundreds of residents had signed a petition asking the board to take action to protect the trees. But the board, pressed for time, chose not to take further action.

At the August meeting, Manoa resident Ellen Sofio expressed exasperation at the board’s conduct.

“I’m gonna be honest,” Sofio said. “There’s all this infighting going on, and we aren’t talking about the issues that affect the community.”

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