Several government board meetings including panels on wastewater and game were canceled in January due to the lack of functioning Zoom links and a failure to provide contact information on the public meeting agendas.
The omissions violated a new provision in Hawaii’s Sunshine Law that took effect on Jan. 1, but those preparing the agendas may not have known that.
Some of the smaller boards have struggled to comply with the new open meetings requirements, blaming a lack of resources such as adequate staffing and equipment. The state Office of Information Practices said that led to complaints despite efforts to prepare the boards for the changes.
“We spent months redoing all of our training materials online to update them on this new law,” OIP staff attorney Jennifer Brooks said, noting the training is regularly updated on the agency’s website. “But nonetheless there were boards that missed the message, and we’re noticing meetings without the contact information on their agenda so we ended up getting a lot of complaints.”
The Sunshine Law stipulates how state and county boards are to conduct official business, and local compliance has long been a problem. The Covid-19 pandemic has been a mixed blessing, forcing the boards to go online and improve technological capabilities but also creating new requirements.
Act 220, which was approved by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. David Ige last year, gives boards permanent authority to use interactive conference technology to conduct remote meetings under the open meetings law. Previously, that authority was based on the state’s Covid emergency proclamation.
The changes that took effect on Jan. 1 require that meeting agendas include contact information. A new provision also would have mandated at least one in-person location be arranged for public meetings held remotely, but that was put on hold by Ige’s latest emergency proclamation.
As part of the new change in the Sunshine Law, boards are required to include electronic and postal contact information for submission of testimony, which was lacking in some board meeting notices in January.
The OIP also suggested that boards cancel their meetings last month due to nonfunctioning Zoom links and failure to provide instructions and accommodations for people with disabilities.
Neighborhood boards in particular have had difficulties in complying with the open meetings law even before the latest updates, according to Charmaine Doran, a member of the Pearl City Neighborhood Board.
Doran blamed the Neighborhood Commission Office, which oversees all 35 neighborhood boards on Oahu, saying it failed to provide agendas with contact information, board resolutions, street permits and developer presentations.
Most boards, including the neighborhood boards, are composed of unpaid volunteers with no staff, although they still must meet the requirements of the Sunshine Law. As they adapted to virtual meetings after the onset of the pandemic, Doran said some board members had to buy computers and Wi-Fi and had to learn to use video conference software.
The Neighborhood Commission’s administrative office, which is staffed by salaried city employees, helps the neighborhood boards by setting up their meetings, making sure internet connections work and posting meeting minutes.
Lloyd Yonenaka, executive secretary for the Neighborhood Commission Office, said the administrative staff was doing its best to adapt to the new rules and stressed the technological advances that have been made.
“Two years ago, very few people were talking about Zoom or WebEx in terms of the general public,” Yonenaka said. “But today, almost everybody understands Zoom, or at least they’ve heard of it. It’s actually interesting, with something as bad as Covid, that something came out of it that I think will benefit us in the long run.”
But Doran said that boards should strive to do more than the minimum.
“We should be working for the public interest,” she said.
Meanwhile, state lawmakers are considering measures that would further amend the Hawaii Sunshine Law to require that board information packets be made available before the meeting and to archive video livestreams.
Some boards already have been livestreaming their meetings. The University of Hawaii Board of Regents, for example, has livestreamed meetings but doesn’t maintain a video archive of them.
“Video recordings are posted on our website until such time it is replaced with the draft of the meeting minutes,” Christine Okada, secretary of the regents’ executive administrator, said in an email.
House Bill 1897 would change that by requiring all boards to livestream meetings and archive the recordings online so the public has access to what was said verbatim as opposed to paraphrased meeting minutes.
State Rep. Tina Wildberger, who wrote the bill, said Hawaii fell behind on using “technology for transparency, accessibility and responsiveness” during the pandemic.
“The bill is just a modicum of bringing the condition and the groups that hold public meetings out of the dark ages,” Wildberger said.
The bill also would require boards to identify each item on its agenda and to post meeting minutes and board packets online.
Brain Black, executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center, testified in support of the bill and said it’s a chance for the public to understand what will be discussed at the meetings.
“Board agendas are supposed to be detailed enough that the public can decide whether or not they wish to testify; nevertheless, the agendas often are overly generic, use strange jargon, or require members of the public to look elsewhere for information,” Black said in testimony. “All of these issues are violations of the Sunshine Law under existing OIP opinions, but, notwithstanding OIP guidance, these poor practices are widespread.”
The Hawaii Paroling Authority, a board that oversees parole, opposed the measure because of logistical, technical and financial cost concerns.
Senate Bill 2143, introduced by Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz on behalf of Common Cause Hawaii, would require all government boards to make their packets – documents related to items of the board’s agenda – publicly available for review at least 24 hours prior to the meeting.
Common Cause Hawaii, a grassroots organization, has in the past raised concerns about the Oahu Reapportionment Commission not providing board packets in time for a key meeting, saying it prevented “meaningful public input.”
The National Federation of the Blind of Hawaii testified in support of the measure but suggested adding a requirement for the online board packets to include a screen-reader accessible format for people unable to read standard print.
James Gashel, who represents the group, said it’s difficult for blind people to read hard-copy board packets and even information on the computer screen.
“It should not be considered an accommodation to choose an accessible format over an inaccessible one,” Gashel continued. “It’s really just a matter of awareness.”
A story that takes fives minutes to read often takes days to report.
Quality journalism takes time and resources to produce, but with support from readers like you, Civil Beat can investigate issues and publish stories that are otherwise difficult to fund.
Become a donor and help support Civil Beat’s next investigation.