Neal Milner: The Legislature's Virus Committee Needs To Raise A Stink


About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


On paper the Legislature’s COVID-19 committee with key House and Senate members and community leaders, including a bank president and chief execs of two large health care operations, is a heavy-duty bunch.

On paper. But not an excellent choice in practice: the committee could be a dud, or worse, an enabler of a flawed, unjust process.

Here’s why and what the committee should be ready to do in order to be successful.

At its meeting Monday, this blue-ribbon group made what Civil Beat called “pointed recommendations” to get Hawaii’s increasingly awful pandemic response back on track.

Good luck with that. You movers and shakers are up against a system that doesn’t move and doesn’t shake.

You may not have the power or the gumption to do something about that if push comes to shove and your pointed recommendations are blunted.

Keep in mind what this committee is up against. It is trying to bring about accountability in a political system that is historically and endemically resistant to accountability.

House Committee on COVID19. Speaker Scott Saiki mediates meeting on Olelo.

The House COVID-19 committee is co-chaired by House Speaker Scott Saiki, shown here, and Bank of Hawaii President Peter Ho. The blue-ribbon committee needs to seize the moment it finds itself in.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

On COVID-19, Department of Health officials and the governor have been the leader of this pack of information hoarders and evaders, using all of the usual weapons of opaqueness with an extra-special frosting of white lies and misleading blather about contact tracing.

So given these roadblocks, how has the COVID-19 committee done so far? Let’s look more closely at what it did in the Monday meeting when things were really hitting the fan, what with many more cases and many fewer tracers.

Nothing wrong with the recommendations they made that day. In fact everything is right about them.

But what is this, the end of March?  Mid-April? The COVID-19 committee is asking for an accountability and oversight process that should have been in place early in the pandemic.

Coming up on 200 days since the pandemic started, and the committee is still asking for basic information that should have been available from the beginning.

OK, you can understand why it is hard to furnish dependable scientific information. The disease is constantly evolving.

But the communications process is anything but rocket science. It’s social science. And simple social science at that: be honest, candid and offer information that people need to make good decisions.

So yes, coming up with the recommendations is a big deal, but their tardiness is an even bigger deal because that shows how bad the  process has been and what the committee is up against.

So what, you may say. Better late than never. Yeah, but here’s the thing: there is just a little too much of a feeling now of “Hey, we got this,” a little too much optimism when House Speaker and COVID-19 committee member Scott Saiki claimed that with this better data the committee can do fuller oversight.

As my grandma used to say, oy, it should only be.

If the governor stays his usual calm on the outside but stubborn on the inside, call him out.

Because there really is no indication that the governor or the DOH officials want to be overseen. And remember, a basic characteristic of Hawaii state government is lack of oversight and well-honed mechanisms of weaseling, delaying, obfuscating, and self-excusing.

So there is an excellent chance that the recommendations of this COVID-19 committee will go the way many blue-ribbon like groups have gone.

Nowhere.

There are two things the COVID-19 committee can do to keep this from happening.

First, it needs to operate not simply as an overseer, which in this state is more fluff than sense.

The committee has to see itself more as a group monitoring an historically non-complying institution as part of a consent decree, like an overcrowded prison.

Of course there is an important difference. An actual decree committee can turn toward a judge for leverage. Nevertheless, the COVID-19 committee can and should adopt a monitoring “don’t trust but verify” approach that is more proactive about what is really going on.

For example, every time DOH uses something like “within the bounds of privacy,” one of its favorite weapons, the blue-ribboners should see that as a red flag. Then don’t trust but verify.

Second, the committee needs to be prepared to take it to the next level if the governor or the DOH does not comply with the recommendations.

This may not be easy because the committee members are for the most part insiders. In their daily work they don’t need to go public. As a bank president or a health care CEO, you get easy access to the people you need to talk to.

And the legislators are part of a body that has all kinds of opaque processes it uses to do its work.

So you may not have the inclination or preparation to do what may need to be done.

Which is to raise a stink. If you are not getting the accountability you want, go public, go loud and up the ante.

If DOH does what it typically does, assert publicly that those responsible should lose their jobs.

If the governor stays his usual calm on the outside but stubborn on the inside, call him out.

If committee members have been paying attention, you know that the angry, scared, and disgusted folks in the community are not going to accuse you of bad manners.

They are more likely to accuse you of good manners.

So, COVID-19 committee, raise your game. You are playing a real opponent.


Read this next:

VIRUS TRACKER -- Aug. 20: 236 New COVID-19 Cases And 2 Deaths


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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


Latest Comments (0)

No amount of "stink" is going to get anyone fired.

nobody · 4 weeks ago

Raise StinkHere's an idea for the public to express their dissatisfaction with the way the government is handling the epidemic and their business-as-usual incompetence and non-transparency......At appointed hours, everyone gather and circle around the government buildings and "give em' stink eye" voodoo style. No signs, no chanting, just stink eye.Its proved to change governments in other countries.

Joseppi · 4 weeks ago

The big stick.  When government officials injure a community of 50 persons or more due to complacency then a percentage of the public officials retirement shall be forfeited and returned to the state upon retirement.  

Lillian · 4 weeks ago

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