Let’s Remove Obstacles That Keep Citizens From Getting Government Records - Honolulu Civil Beat

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The members of The Civil Beat Editorial Board are Chad Blair, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Lee Cataluna, Kim Gamel and John Hill. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Not all members may participate in every interview or essay. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at cblair@civilbeat.org.

Karl Rhoads, the state senator whose district includes downtown, Chinatown, Palama, Iwilei and Liliha, was approached by a constituent some years ago asking for help.

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The constituent, a resident of the affordable-housing complex at Mayor Wright Homes, had lost a son in a police shooting that was determined to be a case of justifiable homicide. Could Rhoads help him get a copy of the police report?

“It was unbelievably difficult to get the closing report, and even with my help it took seven years,” Rhoads explained, adding that it was not the first time he had been approached regarding public records.

Rhoads is the author of Senate Bill 3252, which would waive copying costs for the first 100 pages of government records if disclosure is in the public’s interest. The charge — including the cost of agency staff searching for and reviewing the records — would be capped at a reasonable level.

And there would be no charge if the records are in electronic form such as an Excel spreadsheet. Rather than print out each page and charge for it, government workers can just attach the files to emails and hit “send.”

Rhoads’ report on the bill, which passed his Judiciary Committee Feb. 16, stated that public records laws “provide a critical mechanism” to maintain government accountability and transparency and “support citizen involvement in government decision-making. The real-world consequences of restricting access to that information can range from serious to routine but, in all cases, result in a less informed citizenry. Fee waivers offer a simple and flexible solution.”

Senator Karl Rhoads during recreational marijuana hearing.
Sen. Karl Rhoads is the author of a bill designed to help the public and the media access public records. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

This is a good bill that should become law, and it is encouraging to see lawmakers advancing such ideas — something that stands in contrast to other bills that seem a step in the opposite direction when it comes to transparency, accessibility and accountability.

More on that shortly. While getting copies of public records may not seem of pressing interest to most folks, it’s essential for the media and concerned individuals and groups.

But huge fees for the record requests — something that Civil Beat reporters and editors have experienced first hand — are an obstacle toward open government and can discourage the public from asking important questions. A random sampling two years ago of public records laws found that Hawaii agencies charged more than twice any other state surveyed.

Sourcing these documents often leads to important news stories. Brian Black, executive director of the nonprofit Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, noted in his testimony in favor of SB 3252 that reporters and watchdog activists have written publicly about the state’s pension burdens, the “deficiencies” in revocable permit systems for the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and the Department of Land and Natural Resources, delays at the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs in disciplining doctors and the discipline or exoneration of law enforcement officers for the death or assault of a citizen.

“News media and public interest organizations spend hundreds of hours investigating, synthesizing, and publishing information about government operations,” Black wrote. “When the cost is too much, the general public is left in the dark.”

SB 3252 did receive comments from several state agencies that said they generally support the intent of the legislation but worry about implementation, time and costs. And the Office of Information Practices cautioned that there might be unintended consequences should the bill become law, like encouraging the filing of more complex record requests.

But Black said that Uniform Information Practices Act requests — Hawaii’s version of the federal Freedom of Information Act — made to state and county agencies account for only a small number of agency requests.

And the bill itself requires OIP to “move aggressively against any agency that uses such charges to chill the exercise of first amendment rights.”

As Rhoads told Civil Beat, “It just shouldn’t be that hard. It should be a matter of course, standard operating procedure.”

SB 3252 now awaits a hearing in Donovan Dela Cruz’s Senate Ways and Means Committee. Here’s how to contact him and his committee.

The Bad, The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Which brings us to other bills before lawmakers involving the public interest.

Legislators introduced a bill to allow acceptance of gifts by legislators and employees rather than report them to the Hawaii State Ethics Commission. It would include foreign protocol gifts, “gifts of aloha” (i.e., plate lunches, lei, plaques, framed photos), invitations to charitable events and meals. Good government groups rightly pointed out that House Bill 1871 was a very bad idea.

Not coincidentally, the bill was killed the day after news broke that two former lawmakers had been arrested for accepting bribes. The day after that, the state Senate resurrected Les Ihara’s Senate Bill 555 from last year that would prohibit legislators from holding fundraisers during session — something that has been proposed year after year. It’s time for this bill to become law.

Here’s another wholly unnecessary bill: Senate Bill 2123. It calls for redacting dollar amount ranges in the public financial disclosure forms for top board and commission members because, some argue, not having to disclose the figures would attract more and better applicants.

In fact, the Ige administration is not struggling to fill those positions. Just last week, for example, the governor named five to serve on the Board of Land and Natural Resources. The real problem is that there are people in our community who want to control public policy by serving on a public board but don’t want the public knowing their own potential business conflicts.

SB 2123 requires a joint committee hearing by Rhoads and Dela Cruz soon in order to advance. Let SB 2123 die.

Opening Day Legislature 2022. Representative Mark Nakashima speaks to media during a press conference held at the Capitol.
Rep. Mark Nakashima is the author of a bill that, a critic says, “will destroy our public records law.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Finally, House Bill 2303 would roll back a Hawaii Supreme Court ruling that opened up many government records to the public, including draft documents and records that show how an agency came to a decision. The rationale, as Civil Beat reported, is that public disclosure could “impair” an agency’s ability to “make sound and fair decisions, but only to the extent that such impairment outweighs the public interest in disclosure.”

The court found that a blanket “deliberative process privilege,” as the rationale is known, was a bad idea. But some lawmakers want to effectively go over the heads of the justices, at the encouragement of OIP Director Cheryl Kakazu Park, who should be arguing for more public access not trying to restrict it.

On Friday, unfortunately, House Bill 2303 passed the House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee. The committee’s chair is the same person as the author of the bill, Rep. Mark Nakashima.

Asked for comment, Black said, “It is a terrible, terrible bill. If there’s any one bill in this session that is a bad bill, it is that one, and it will destroy our public records law.”

HB 2303 now goes to the entire House of Representatives for a vote in order to cross over to the Senate. Here is the contact information for all 51 members — except Cullen, who resigned just before the news broke that he had accepted bribes to kill bills.

If you do one thing this week, take a moment to email or call House members and let them know you want them to oppose this terrible bill.

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About the Author

Civil Beat Editorial Board

The members of The Civil Beat Editorial Board are Chad Blair, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Lee Cataluna, Kim Gamel and John Hill. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Not all members may participate in every interview or essay. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at cblair@civilbeat.org.

Latest Comments (0)

Whoa, CB comes out swinging!I'm mostly with you folks -- except you're just wrong about the redaction of $$ figures from board disclosures. I'm pretty sure the ethics commission testified that nothing under 5k gets reported, in any event. So if you see a blanked out figure, you know its not de minimus. And you know the source of the money. Thus, from this information you can figure out potential conflicts. Your "evidence" that the disclosure hasn't chilled board applicants is rather thin, frankly - a few recent nominations? That seems to me like you picked an opinion, then worked backwards to defend it. You all can dig a little deeper than that. Finally, "In Karl Rhodes we trust" would perhaps have been a better title.

BEN · 1 year ago

The Machine in action here. The Machine includes players in both the public and private sector as they work together to remain in power and maintain the status quo. On the public sector side, elected officials and civil servants work together to keep the wheels of the Machine turning smoothly. On the private sector side, those benefitting from the actions of the Machine (government permits and contracts) show their appreciation of the public sector players with rewards and gifts.This is not an accusation of illegal or criminal action the part of the Machine. The Machine doesn't have to violate the law to get its way. The Machine simply amends the law in its way to get a new law that makes the Machine's operations legal.HB 2303 is an example of this. If you don't like the Hawaii Supreme Court's decision, change the statutory law to overrule the decision of our judiciary.Has anyone asked Ms. Kakazu if she thinks HB 2303 is contrary to the spirit of the UIPA which she should be protecting.

LostAndFound · 1 year ago

So we see the close to end result (more on this later) of poor civics teaching in our public schools. You know...to include integrity, basic American US values of what it means to be the freest nation, how words have meaning, all of that.Obfuscating, justification of "progressive" ideas that actually are counter to the civic norms that have shaped our communities and nation since its founding, use of semantics to do the bait-and-switch or the gut and replace. And all of it right in front of us. Like they don't even care if we know that they know that we know, y'know!So the end result should be, that when presented the facts of a matter we have 2 choices as responsible citizens and residents...something...or nothing.It's an election year. Send them all a message that is not ambiguous. Like what is a public record. Like what is a public servant. Like it's not your money.

Ranger_MC · 1 year ago

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