A panel of senators on Thursday heard plans for airports to begin putting passengers in quarantine after they arrive in Hawaii, a decision that could cost the state $1 million a month.
The meeting with transportation officials and others arose out of the state Senate’s frustration with the Ige administration’s apparent slow work to halt the spread of the coronavirus.
Briefings like these where lawmakers question state officials and the public gets a peek inside the workings of government are usually open to the public or at least accessible online.
The problem on Thursday? The public couldn’t watch.
And on Friday Senate leaders wouldn’t say why they conducted a meeting on important public policy outside the public eye.
“Please note that today’s initial meeting of the special committee is an internal meeting and not open to the public or media,” Jesse Broder Van Dyke, the Senate spokesman, wrote in an email an hour before the meeting was scheduled to begin.
The meeting was supposed to air live on Olelo Channel 55. When the clock hit 1 p.m., the scheduled start time, a Spanish-language church program started playing instead.
The results of the meeting eventually came through a Senate press release — nearly six hours later. There’s been no clear explanation for what exactly happened to the Olelo broadcast.
Senate President Ron Kouchi did not respond to a call Friday. Olelo directed media inquiries to the Senate Communications Office.
Asked whether future such meetings might be televised — and if not, why not? — Broder Van Dyke replied, “Due to the shutdown of the Senate, the committee has postponed meetings and staff are working on ways to move forward. We will provide updates as they become available.”
Asked via email why the scheduled broadcast was cut, he responded, “The Senate is working to quickly adjust procedures for the rapidly moving COVID-19 emergency and appreciates the public’s patience during this time as changes and cancellations occur.”
The situation highlights the struggle the public has in keeping a close watch on its government while the state deals with COVID-19.
The scene at the State Capitol was chaos on Thursday as Sen. Clarence Nishihara was informed he tested positive for COVID-19 after a trip to Las Vegas. Several senators told Civil Beat that legislative staff were having trouble getting the livestream to work around the time that news of the diagnosis came.
The meetings for now have been canceled as the Capitol building is effectively shuttered following Nishihara’s test result. A meeting scheduled for Friday with the University of Hawaii and Department of Education was canceled.
Broder Van Dyke himself was among dozens employed at the Capitol who met with a medical team after the news spread about Nishihara.
“He advised me to self isolate and contact him by phone if I start exhibiting any symptoms,” he said about the doctor’s evaluation. “Other colleagues told me they did get swabbed.”
An additional screening opportunity has been scheduled for Saturday.
During a typical legislative session all committee meetings are recorded. However, not all are aired live for people to watch even as legislators debate hundreds of bills each year.
The Legislature was suspended indefinitely Monday. Before that, the Senate had already begun limiting in-person access to committee rooms and set up televisions outside those rooms to broadcast hearings.
Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz leads the special committee, which was formed by Kouchi to spur movement in state agencies on COVID-19. Dela Cruz asked all the state’s departments to come up with plans by last Saturday.
He says only four have sent those to the Senate Ways and Means Committee so far.
“It’s obvious there’s a lot more planning that needs to take place,” Dela Cruz said. “The whole thing is to flatten the curve. We want to make sure we can help expedite that.”
Senate committees aren’t required to open meetings to the public if the senators aren’t making decisions on measures, according to the state constitution.
“Because this committee is an important source of information about the state’s COVID-19 response, I would hope that the committee would provide real-time access to the public, not just legislators,” said Brian Black, executive director of The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest.
Some of the senators on that committee also want any future meetings to be more open to the public — even if the public can’t come to meeting rooms in light of the virus.
“We’re not trying to hide anything,” Sen. Kurt Fevella said. “As we get any information, we want to be able to give it to the community.”
Fevella said he had concerns the state was not acting quickly enough in regards to schools. Fevella, who represents Ewa Beach — the area with the state’s largest high school — said the DOE should end classes for the rest of the year. Students right now are scheduled to go back April 7.
Another senator on the special committee, Jarrett Keohokalole, said, “These are extraordinary times, things are moving really quickly and it’s really important to make sure that the governor is approaching the response to this crisis in an informed and proactive manner. And that is why I agreed to participate and will continue to try and work toward that outcome.”
Keohokalole added, “The whole point of this committee is to assure the Senate that the administration is taking all the necessary steps to flatten the curve. That is the sole point of this body.”
The other members of the Senate Special Committee on COVID-19 are Sens. Michelle Kidani, Donna Mercado Kim and Sharon Moriwaki.
A meeting of the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness scheduled for Monday was also canceled Thursday.
It, too, was to be broadcast live on Olelo and to the neighbor islands, even though — just like the Senate meeting — no public testimony would be accepted.
House Speaker Scott Saiki said the special panel plans to meet again, and that he plans to have Olelo broadcast it — even though it may consist of Saiki sitting in a room and teleconferencing with his colleagues.
“I think it’s important to have updated developments through the committee,” said Saiki, who on Thursday wrote a strongly worded letter to Gov. David Ige complaining that the state’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic “has been utterly chaotic and there is a mass confusion among the public.”
Like his colleagues in the Senate, Saiki is demanding much stronger measures from the governor to mitigate the virus, including ordering all travelers from outside of Hawaii to be quarantined for 15 days and for state residents to essentially shelter in place.
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