The Legislature Should Not Create Barriers To The Public's Access To Virtual Meetings - Honolulu Civil Beat


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The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board are Pierre Omidyar, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Chad Blair, Jessica Terrell, Julia Steele, Lee Cataluna, Kim Gamel and John Hill. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at cblair@civilbeat.org.


It can be difficult to find much good that has come out of the pandemic. But in terms of public access to and participation in government deliberations, one of the unexpected benefits has been the significant expansion of videoconferencing of hearings and meetings.

A year ago at this time there was tremendous doubt that the public and the media would be able to engage in press conferences, briefings, hearings and other matters of governance. It did not help that Gov. David Ige suspended Hawaii’s open meetings and public records laws early on in the crisis.

The governor later eased the restrictions on the Sunshine Law on meetings, however, to allow public boards and commissions to convene as long as COVID-19 social distancing protocol was followed. Agendas and related materials also had to be posted online with plenty of notice to accommodate remote viewing and testimony.

Now, the Hawaii Legislature has the chance to allow remote access to continue once the pandemic has eased, but it will require amending the Sunshine Law. Senate Bill 1034 is that vehicle, but in its current form, it seems to make it more difficult by limiting access.

Specifically, new language added by House lawmakers says that boards and commissions may not necessarily need to provide access to physical meeting locations for virtual hearings after the pandemic. Such a location, a spot where members of the public could go to see and participate in the virtual hearing, would be considered only if someone asks for it 72 hours before the meeting is scheduled.

A University of Hawaii Board of Regents virtual meeting in September. A bill moving at the state Legislature would no longer require emergencies to allow public boards and commissions to meet remotely. 

That’s not a good idea. It assumes that everyone has equal access to the internet as well as mastery over platforms like Zoom, Cisco Webex, BlueJeans and the like. And given that public bodies must announce their meetings six days ahead of time, members of the public would have to stay on top of every announcement to assure they filed their requests for a physical meeting space on time.

“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 House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs committee Tuesday. “I think there should be one in-person official location that folks can go to if they are uncomfortable with technology.”

We agree.

Another challenge with SB 1034 is the concern of accommodating people with disabilities. Kirby Shaw, executive director of the Disability and Communication Access Board, noted in testimony that individuals with disabilities “have unique accessibility and accommodation needs when it comes to participating in public meetings.”

Shaw wants videoconferencing in conjunction with in-person meetings to continue even when no emergency has been declared by government authorities.

We agree with that too.

After all, the primary intent of SB 1034 — to make permanent the state’s pivot to virtual meetings — is backed by the leaders of several top agencies directly impacted by the Sunshine Law. They include the Board of Land and Natural Resources and agencies under its purview such as the Commission on Water Resource Management, and the University of Hawaii Board of Regents.

The legislation was originally pushed by the Office of Information Practices, whose director Cheryl Kakazu Park said in December, “We’ve been supportive of this because it will expand public participation. We are getting lots of good feedback from the public that online meetings have helped to expand public access and participation in Sunshine Law meetings.”

Contact Key Lawmakers

SB 1034 now awaits a full vote by the House. Assuming it passes, the Senate would then be asked whether to accept the House amendments or disagree with them. The second option would likely send the bill into the conference committee process later this month where the two sides would be required to hammer out a compromise.

If that happens, we very much hope that the House — in particular, Pandemic and Disaster Preparedness Committee Chair Linda Ichiyama and Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee Chair Mark Nakashima — will take another look at the original Senate version, which is a good bill that makes good sense.

Indeed, as the legislation itself still posits, the increased costs of staffing and resources needed to handle remote meetings have been offset “by the savings in time, convenience, and travel costs for board members and participants, especially those from the neighbor islands.” It may also increase the number of volunteers willing to serve on government boards and commissions and “help to increase public participation in the formation and conduct of public policy” — something SB 1034 also states.

Meetings, hearings and briefings will one day return to public gatherings in public places. But when that happens Hawaii should capitalize on what we have learned from the pandemic — that government and citizen participation can continue even if it’s on a computer or smartphone, from the comfort of one’s abode or an in-person meeting place where the public can participate.


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About the Author

Civil Beat Editorial Board

The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board are Pierre Omidyar, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Chad Blair, Jessica Terrell, Julia Steele, Lee Cataluna, Kim Gamel and John Hill. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at cblair@civilbeat.org.


Latest Comments (0)

Of course the public deserves to see and hear these functions! The problem is when they go behind closed doors and do different things that fit their agenda. This is their strength. Back stabbers, is an appropriate name for them! Kinda strong but when they go behind closed doors, that's where the negotiating begins!

Richard · 1 week ago

I guess some of these legislators prefer to do their public work in darkness. Shame

MarkS_OceanDem · 1 week ago

I'll bet I'm not the only one who thinks, when reading an article about efforts to restrict public access to meetings and information, "Hmmm, just what are they trying to hide?'

JimP · 1 week ago

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