Hawaii government boards and commissions may not need to provide access to physical meeting locations for virtual hearings after the pandemic.

That’s a new provision in Senate Bill 1034, which sought to open up the workings of government to the public by updating Hawaii’s open meeting law to allow for remote meetings held on applications like Zoom and BlueJeans.

Boards and commissions in Hawaii are only allowed to do that because of Gov. David Ige’s suspension of the Sunshine Law, as the meeting law is commonly referred to, as a result of COVID-19. Since then, boards and commissions, just like other government agencies, have been permitted to meet virtually through videoconferencing, allowing the public to tune in.

Board of Education, DOE, BOE, teacher pay differential
Boards and commissions covered by Hawaii’s Sunshine Law wouldn’t have to provide the public with a physical meeting location under a Senate bill. Above, the Board of Education meets in early 2020. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat/2019

But one line in SB 1034 has caught the attention of open meetings advocates over worries that it could widen the digital divide and make certain meetings only accessible to those with the appropriate technology.

“We shouldn’t be putting up barriers in front of people to connect to these meetings,” Brian Black, executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, told the committee. “I think there should be one in-person official location that folks can go to if they are uncomfortable with technology.”

Meanwhile, advocates from the state’s Disability and Communications Access Board and other organizations have also raised concerns over issues of access for disabled individuals.

The state Office of Information Practices wrote the original draft of SB 1034. It would allow for three different types of meetings in non-pandemic times: one where everyone convenes in person; one where board members meet at one location, with the public tuning in from home or other public locations; or a meeting where everyone meets remotely.

On March 16, the House Pandemic and Disaster Preparedness Committee added a line to SB 1034 that makes in-person meeting locations for those remote meetings optional. 

A publicly accessible meeting location would only be required if someone asks for it at least three days before the meeting. SB 1034 still requires physical meeting sites in the event a board holds a meeting in person or conducts a conference meeting from various locations around the state.

The Office of Information Practices intended for the public to have an in-person meeting location, even for some meetings where all the members would be meeting remotely. That was to ensure that even individuals without computer access could still attend those meetings. 

OIP Director Cheryl Kakazu Park said in an interview Wednesday that the office has urged lawmakers to clarify the language so that the public can understand how to request in-person access.

She suggested that meeting notices should include clear instructions on how to request access to a public meeting location for a remote hearing.

Park isn’t too concerned that the requirement asking the public to request in-person meeting access could be a barrier, because if someone can get the meeting notice, then they would know how to ask for a meeting location.

“It should be as simple as a phone call,” she said.

She expects most large state boards to continue providing physical meeting locations once the pandemic is over.

SB 1034 cleared the House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee on Tuesday. It now heads to a vote by the full 51-member House.

Agency Obligations

At the hearing Tuesday, Black of the Civil Beat Law Center told lawmakers that it’s not easy for some individuals to figure out how to use remote meeting technology.

Stirling Morita, the president of the Hawaii Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, also urged lawmakers to get rid of the provision.

“We think this could be an imposition on people who cannot afford to access the internet,” Morita wrote in testimony. “Also this provision supposes that people can act quickly after an agenda is posted; this is not realistic.”

And disability advocates raised concerns that SB 1034 does not do enough to force agencies to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Colin Whited, the ADA coordinator for the state’s Disability and Communications Access Board, relies on an American Sign Language interpreter to communicate to boards and know what’s happening during meetings. He  told lawmakers that if the visual feed for a public meeting suddenly cuts out or if a meeting runs longer than his interpreter can stay, he loses access to the meeting.

Whited suggested lawmakers require additional support services or closed captioning on meeting video feeds.

Rep. Mark Nakashima, the chairman of the committee, left the meeting request provision in SB 1034 largely untouched.

“It’s not an obligation of the agency to have a site and have the equipment there until someone says they will be there,” Nakashima said during Tuesday’s hearing.

Nakashima said he plans to insert language into the committee’s report on the bill explaining that access to computers at public libraries would be able to satisfy the requirements for boards to provide a physical meeting location.

Because the Senate bill was amended by the House, both chambers have to reach agreement on final language in order for the measure to pass.

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