A commission tasked with making recommendations for government transparency and accountability has so far been meeting behind closed doors but the commission’s chairman says it will open its meetings after delivering an interim report to state lawmakers later this month.

Retired Intermediate Court of Appeals Judge Dan Foley, who leads the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct, said the commission couldn’t work out meeting logistics in time to allow for public participation in March.

The commission’s members include the heads of the state Ethics and Campaign Spending Commissions as well as directors of Common Cause Hawaii and the League of Women Voters of Hawaii – all which advocate for more open government.

The commission first met in late February and must produce an interim report with proposed legislation for this session on March 31. The House convened the new working group days after former lawmakers J. Kalani English and Ty Cullen pleaded guilty to felony charges for taking part in a bribery scheme.

House Resolution 9 requires the commission to assess Hawaii laws dealing with ethics, campaign finance and lobbying. Much of that preliminary report will include recommendations on amendments to bills already moving through the Legislature, according to Foley.

HR 9 doesn’t require the commission to meet publicly.

House floor is reflected in the chandelier above the floor during floor session.
A commission convened by House lawmakers to increase transparency has met in secret but plans to open its meetings to the public after March 31. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

So far, the commission has reviewed lists of bills that are of interest to the four good government groups with seats on the commission. The commissioners have met weekly to discuss that legislation

The commission members also considered public testimony to lawmakers on those bills, as well as news editorials and community letters published in local media.

“The public is contributing indirectly whether they knew it or not,” Foley said.

Still, Foley says the reason the commission is meeting in secret is because there wasn’t time to set up public meetings.

“To set up a good public meeting you need a couple weeks of lead time, and we only have four weeks to come up with a report,” Foley said. “Some members were clearly disappointed we didn’t (open meetings). We as a group decided, as much as it would have been helpful, logistically we couldn’t make it work at the same time.”

Any recommendations made to the lawmakers would likely come in the form of bill amendments as opposed to entirely new measures, according to Foley.

House Speaker Scott Saiki said lawmakers won’t be able to determine how new policy recommendations from the commission could move through the Legislature until he knows what those recommendations are.

“To set up a good public meeting you need a couple weeks of lead time, and we only have four weeks to come up with a report.” — Commission Chair Dan Foley

Introducing any new legislation would be difficult for the commission since deadlines to introduce bills passed in January and a state Supreme Court order from last year barred the practice of gutting bills and replacing them with the contents of new measures.

Foley said one of the bills the commission is considering including in its March report is Senate Bill 555, which would ban lawmakers from holding any fundraisers during the legislative session.

Sandy Ma, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii and a member of the commission, asked lawmakers in February to ban any campaign contributions during the legislative session.

The Senate did not take up her proposal, but she has another chance to push the contributions ban through a commission recommendation.

The public would get more opportunities to weigh in on the commission’s work during meetings to be held between March and December. A second report is due ahead of the 2023 legislative session.

The commission’s future meetings would initially be held on Zoom but could move to in-person locations if the pandemic continues to wind down.

Between March and December, the commission could consider proposals to impose term limits on state lawmakers and would take a deeper look at changes to legislative procedures and rules, Foley said.

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