The Honolulu Police Commission’s meetings follow a predictable format. There is usually a report from the police chief, among other items, before an executive session begins behind closed doors.
But the information the commission has been giving the public about those discussions, and the legal justifications for keeping some chats private, fall short, according to Brian Black, executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest.
Some items are described so broadly on meeting agendas that they don’t capture the essence of the forthcoming discussion, Black said. And when commissioners enter executive session, they use the same “boilerplate” legal language every time as a blanket justification to keep numerous discussions private.
In a letter sent last week, Black is now asking the Hawaii Office of Information Practices to determine whether the commission has violated the Sunshine Law, Hawaii’s open meetings law.
“How do you even know whether you want to testify when the items listed are so vague?” he asked in an interview.
Black is awaiting a response from the OIP.
In an emailed statement, Police Commission Chair Shannon Alivado declined an interview request.
“When the Office of Information Practice (OIP) acknowledges receipt and notifies the Commission, the Commission will work closely with OIP to resolve any concerns raised in the letter,” she said. “Until then, and because the Commission must properly place your questions and the letter on the agenda, the Commission cannot respond to your inquiry.”
According to Black, Alivado’s response highlights the commission’s lack of understanding of the Sunshine Law, no part of which prevents a commission chair from responding to media inquiries.
In his letter to OIP, Black cites examples of “deficient” agenda items from the last six months. One recurring item is “Legal update by Deputy Corporation Counsel, if necessary.” It provides no further information.
On March 3, the agenda simply stated “Salary Commission” as a talking point, which ended up being a discussion “intended to address whether to request a more competitive salary for the chief of police,” Black wrote.
In March and April, the executive session agenda listed a “discussion of legislative bills” without listing the bill numbers, even though identifying the subject matter would not “defeat the purpose of any executive session,” Black wrote. Also, Black said it’s unclear why a discussion of legislation would even need to happen in private.
Another recurring executive session item is particularly opaque: “Executive Officer’s confidential report on matters that must be kept confidential.”
“The Commission routinely fails to give reasonably fair notice of the topics that it plans to discuss in meetings, limiting the public’s right to meaningfully participate in civilian oversight of the Honolulu Police Department,” Black wrote in his letter.
Commissioners even talk about topics that are not on the agenda at all, Black noted.
While the Sunshine Law requires government bodies to list all items that will be considered at a meeting, the Honolulu Police Commission has used the “Chief of Police Report” item as a “catch-all” category for a wide variety of discussions, Black wrote.
“For example, on March 3, then-Chief Susan Ballard reported on, among other things, a City Council resolution regarding an audit of HPD overtime,” Black wrote. “The Commission extensively questioned the chief of police regarding that topic. The March 3 agenda had no reference to overtime concerns.”
More recently, on June 2, Interim Chief Rade Vanic spoke about HPD’s annual training of police officers — which was not on the agenda — and commissioners questioned him on the subject. Afterward, commissioners raised questions about the shootings by police of Iremamber Sykap and Lindani Myeni – subjects that also were not on the agenda.
“The subjects discussed on March 3 and June 2 by the Commission were matters of significant public concern,” Black wrote. “If members of the public had known what would be discussed by the Commission, they could have taken steps to participate in the meeting by testimony or observation.”
Toward the end of every Honolulu Police Commission meeting, a commissioner volunteers to read a paragraph of legal language that signals the transition to the closed-door part of the meeting.
The language is the same at every meeting, covering all possible explanations for why the subsequent discussion must be kept private. This “boilerplate” legal justification is not sufficient, Black argues.
In his letter, Black notes that the commission fails to specify why each executive session item must be discussed behind closed doors, which he argues is a requirement of the law. For instance, when commissioners discuss the hiring of the next police chief away from the eyes and ears of the public, it’s unclear whether they’re keeping the discussion private because it’s a personnel matter, or some other reason, he said.
“The way they do it makes it so you can’t figure out why it is they’re going behind closed doors,” Black said. “The statute requires specificity as to the reasons for closing each discussion.”
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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