Consider these words: “In a democracy, the people are vested with the ultimate decision-making power. Governmental agencies exist to aid the people in the formation and conduct of public policy. Opening up the governmental processes to public scrutiny and participation is the only viable and reasonable method of protecting the public’s interest.”

Those words come from the introduction to Hawaii Revised Statutes Chapter 92F, which details the state’s public records law — also known as the Uniform Information Practices Act — and open meetings law — also known as the Sunshine Law.

Until March 16, the laws formed the cornerstone of the public’s right to know what their government officials are doing.

But on that date Gov. David Ige suspended these provisions of 92F until May 15 as part of his supplemental emergency proclamation in response to COVID-19.

Gov. David Ige announced an emergency proclamation regarding COVID-19 on March 16. The governor should move now to reverse his order to suspend the state’s public meetings and open records laws.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“All reasonable measures will be taken to ensure public participation that is consistent with recommended social distancing practices,” according to the press release from the governor’s office.

Cheryl Kakazu Park, head of the Hawaii Office of Information Practices, subsequently seized on Ige’s order to tell state agencies to essentially ignore any requests for records.

At a press conference Tuesday, Ige dodged a question about why he’d essentially eliminated access to public records. He found it much easier to explain his rationale behind shutting the public out of meetings — good social distancing practices, he says.

Ige pointed to the example of legislative committees that have been using video-conferencing to conduct hearings while they are out of session due to COVID-19.

“The hearings are still public. They do publicly announce the meetings,” he said, but explained that the legislators and other participants are physically separated.

The public meetings law was suspended “so that we could continue to do the public’s business in the public eye in a different way.”

Anyone who has tried to watch a recent legislative hearing via YouTube or the public access channel, Olelo, must wonder how Hawaii managed to make it to the year 2020 with such terrible video-conferencing and public participation technology. U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz gave the state Senate commiittee a scratchy rundown of the $2.2 trillion federal stimulus package via an old-school speaker phone with the camera trained on its blinking buttons. But that’s a different story and a future editorial.

Still, the Facebook Live streamed press conferences from the Ige administration, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell and other county mayors have been garnering thousands of viewers, even if they can do little more than post comments on the side.

The special committees on COVID-19 in the state House and Senate give the public a glimpse of lawmakers wrestling with the state’s response. Lawmakers in the room and those joining electronically from home are asking tough questions and demanding answers of a parade of state officials.

These are trying times, and they warrant many of the serious actions taken by our government to mitigate the virus such as quarantining and social distancing.

But stringently curbing public and media access to governmental proceedings and documents should not be part of the state’s response.

As Civil Beat reported Monday, Ige’s suspension of 92F was far harsher than action taken anywhere else in the country.

It comes at a time when the public is clamoring for more information about a situation that is truly life and death not to mention financially devastating for many families.

Stringently curbing public and media access to governmental proceedings and documents should not be part of the state’s response to COVID-19.

Now is not the time for less access to government. Ige needs to adopt the recommendations in the recent letter delivered to him from The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, asking that he lift the prohibition on public records and revisit the requirements for open meetings to a much more sensible level.

As the center’s executive director, Brian Black, points out, some parts of our government need to continue operating even under crisis. And the public needs to be able to participate as best it can.

“Government leaders must be willing to stand up to informed public scrutiny because when citizens know through public access laws that government is accountable, it reduces public anxiety about government decisions,” Black wrote.

“Suspending the laws entirely was recklessly over-broad. Thus, while limits tailored to this emergency are appropriate, blanket disregard for public rights of access only adds to the chaos.”

Bottom line: 92F must be reinstated immediately.

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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