WASHINGTON — Hawaii Gov. David Ige relaxed his suspension of the state’s open meetings and public records laws Tuesday when he issued a revised emergency proclamation allowing thousands of businesses to reopen this week after being shut down due to threats posed by the coronavirus.
The suspension was considered one of the most extreme anti-transparency measures taken by any U.S. governor in response to the coronavirus pandemic. It essentially allowed public boards and commissions to meet without the public being able to attend, even via videoconferencing. And government agencies were told they didn’t have to comply with requests for public records until the suspension was lifted.
The new proclamation encourages public boards and commissions, such as county councils, to avoid holding meetings during the outbreak unless it is absolutely necessary to comply with the law or respond to the ongoing COVID-19 emergency.
If boards do conduct business, which would require proper social distancing and teleconferencing capabilities, the order asks that every attempt be made under normal Sunshine Law procedures to ensure public notification and participation, from posting agenda materials online to accommodating remote viewing and testimony.
When it comes to the state’s public records law, the Uniform Information Practices Act, the proclamation states that agency officials can still delay responding to requests from citizens and the press, but that they should at least acknowledge that they received a request.
The order also states that any public documents requested under the law be retained and not destroyed, a requirement that was not in place when Ige first implemented the suspension.
“This proclamation is a significant step in the right direction,” said Brian Black, executive director of The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest. “I strongly support this step as being appropriate for where we are right now. I wish it would have come earlier, but I think the governor has done the right thing.”
Black has been at the forefront of the effort to convince Ige to reinstate Hawaii’s open government laws, which he says are important when it comes to holding officials accountable during a crisis.
He spent weeks negotiating with state officials to find a reasonable solution that took into account the need for transparency and the nuance behind state officials battling a highly infectious virus that has all but shut down public gatherings, such as in-person board meetings, and forced many government workers to stay home.
He said he now hopes that government officials do their best to abide by the good faith requirements spelled out in Ige’s new proclamation.
Ige said Wednesday that he agreed to loosen suspension of the laws because it was “very clear to us that we will have to live in this post COVID-19 era of infectious diseases” and that he wanted to “ensure that the spirit of the law continues.”
Ige suspended Hawaii’s open meetings and public records laws on March 16 even before ordering a 14-day quarantine for people traveling to the islands or stay-at-home, work-from-home orders meant to curb the spread of the virus.
His suspension of the laws was widely panned by both local and national advocates for open government in large part because it was so out of step with what was happening in other states.
The Civil Beat Law Center and Common Cause Hawaii both wrote letters to Ige urging him to reconsider the suspension, saying among other things that it was “recklessly overbroad.”
Black said he now hopes that the new proclamation can serve as a model in future emergency situations, although he still thinks it needs to be revisited and refined depending on how the crisis evolves.
“It will be important as things move on to continue to evaluate allowing more and more public access as we start to return to whatever the new normal is,” Black said. “This is still not where we were before COVID-19. This is only a stop-gap measure to accommodate the current situation.”
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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