As the Civil Beat reporter covering the City and County of Honolulu, an important part of my job is filing requests with the government for public records.
City and state documents often reveal what politicians would never announce at a press conference and are one of the most powerful tools journalists and members of the public have to hold their leaders accountable.
But since Gov. David Ige suspended Hawaii’s public records law with a proclamation in March — and repeatedly extended the suspension since then — government officials have been ignoring requests or dragging their feet when it comes to providing information that is important for you, the public, to know about how your government is operating and spending your tax dollars.
These are decisions that affect you every day. Yet you often aren’t being given much information about what is going on.
When COVID-19 cases in Hawaii were spiking in August with new cases averaging over 220 per day, California Congresswoman Anna Eshoo demanded answers from Ige.
Eshoo, who chairs a U.S. House subcommittee on health matters, wrote that she was concerned for Hawaii, particularly since a whistleblower had come forward to say the state’s contact tracing effort was woefully inadequate. By the end of that month, 70 people had died of the virus. The death toll is now over 250.
The congresswoman asked for information, like: How many contact tracers are there really? What is the state’s response to the whistleblower’s claims? How has Hawaii been spending federal funding?
Hawaii’s response was due Aug. 28. But exactly what Ige told the congresswoman is still a mystery to the public. Ige’s office didn’t answer multiple Civil Beat requests for his response.
The Honolulu Police Department has also become a black hole for public records requests. The city agency spends over $300 million per year, the biggest chunk of taxpayer money for any city department aside from transportation services.
One of my recent requests had to do with HPD’s rate of solving crimes. In September, I reported that HPD’s crime-solving rate was the worst it had been in at least 40 years and is far below the national average. The report was based on data kept by the Attorney General’s Office and numbers HPD provided to the FBI.
Chief Susan Ballard declined to be interviewed for my story but told the Police Commission that my reporting was wrong.
Still, she did not provide commissioners with a complete record of what she believed to be accurate data, and they didn’t ask for it.
So, I filed a request with HPD seeking stats that Ballard believes are correct. HPD did not respond.
Amid national protests this year over police brutality and accountability, HPD launched a committee to review its use of force policy. Police Commissioner Richard Parry has said several times in public meetings that the group established recommendations which were then passed on to the police union and the chief.
What were the recommendations? HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu denied there were any in a September email and has ignored four subsequent emails from me seeking information on the matter.
When an HPD officer was sued for allegedly using his policing power to retaliate against a schoolyard foe of his son, I requested that officer’s disciplinary record – a record that should be public if the officer was suspended since a new police misconduct transparency law passed this year.
“We received your request and will get back to you,” HPD spokeswoman Sarah Yoro said in a Nov. 16 email. She has not gotten back to me.
In September, I asked the Human Resources department for police overtime data showing how much individual officers earned in 2019 and so far in 2020. The information would be especially important now that HPD has shut down its COVID-19 enforcement team over concerns about overtime abuse – a story first reported by Hawaii News Now thanks to someone who leaked a document.
HPD actually did respond to an identical request for that overtime data with a denial suggesting officers’ privacy would be violated if taxpayers knew how much overtime money they were making. HR just didn’t respond.
HPD has also failed to respond to a request for all officer names, titles and badge numbers. Civil Beat data reporter Yoohyun Jung and I wanted that list to find out which officers have been giving out the most tickets to the city’s homeless population, a followup to a story we’d done that showed some homeless people in Honolulu have been cited dozens of times for pandemic violations. You can’t read the officers’ names on many tickets, but badge numbers are generally clear.
For any of my requests, it’s not unusual for a department to deny access. But Ige’s blanket policy lets agencies off the hook from even saying no and giving a legally valid reason, as is normally required by the law.
Among the records under wraps are allegations of employee misconduct.
It’s been over two months since I asked for investigative files regarding two former employees in the Department of Planning and Permitting who were accused of wrongdoing.
One employee was accused of “serious misconduct” and “potential ethics violations” in the course of their work issuing building permits. The other allegedly threatened someone with bodily harm. That’s according to letters the city did provide in response to a records request, although the letters give no detail of the events and names are redacted.
Both employees were placed on leave – with pay – for over two years, according to the Human Resources department. And within days of Civil Beat publishing a story about city employees on paid leave, including references to these cases, both employees abruptly resigned, HR said.
I asked for the full investigative files for both employees in September. I’d hoped to illuminate the nature of the employees’ alleged misdeeds and find out why they were paid for not working for two whole years.
Neither the mayor’s office nor DPP has responded to the request.
The governor’s proclamation also makes it difficult, if not impossible, to “follow the money.”
For example, it’s been about a year and a half since Honolulu City Council members budgeted $23 million to address homelessness in each of their districts, plus extra funds for Waianae, which has a high number of unsheltered people.
The capital funds were intended to establish shelters, outreach centers and affordable housing units to help address Oahu’s homelessness crisis. As of January, there were at least 4,400 homeless people living on the island, according to the Point In Time count.
So where was all that money spent? Honolulu won’t say.
In June, I requested records from Honolulu’s Department of Budget and Fiscal Services that would show how the funds were allocated. Six months later, BFS has not released a single record.
“We have received the request and it is being worked on as resources permit,” BFS secretary Donnie Wong said in an email last month.
Ige’s suspension of public records provisions was one of the most extreme anti-transparency measures in the country when the pandemic began. Since then, he softened his proclamation’s language and encouraged agencies to respond to requests. But without enforceable deadlines, requesters have little ability to hold agencies’ feet to the fire.
People who request records from other states and the federal government are now also running into roadblocks ostensibly because of the pandemic, the Washington Post reported.
The governor’s office did not respond to an interview request for this story. The governor’s spokeswoman Cindy McMillan said in March that agency response deadlines were suspended to give the government “maximum flexibility to focus its attention and personnel resources on directly addressing the immediate situation at hand.”
She said the law would be restored when “the situation is stabilized and there is proper leeway to re-direct those resources.”
But processing paperwork is not too burdensome for the government when it comes to areas it wants to prioritize.
For instance, Honolulu has made an effort to accommodate an increase in gun permitting and registration, even going so far as to allocate federal CARES funds to extend HPD’s hours. The city is apparently willing to expend resources on paperwork when it comes to accommodating gun owners, but not when it comes to government transparency.
By suspending the public records law, Ige has taken away one of the greatest tools we have as reporters to tell community members what the government is doing on their behalf and to hold institutions accountable.
This is just my story, but my colleagues have similar stories to tell. We believe you should know how your government officials are failing to provide important information.
We’ll be doing more stories like this when it becomes clear that public officials are stalling or ignoring legitimate requests for records and data that you need to make up your own minds about how well state and county governments are serving you.
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