Here's An Easy Way To Help Watchdog Government. Tell Gov. Ige Not To Blow It - Honolulu Civil Beat


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Civil Beat Editorial Board

The members of The Civil Beat Editorial Board are Chad Blair, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, 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.


When the Civil Beat Editorial Board last wrote about Senate Bill 3252, on Feb. 22, it still had to get through the state Senate, the state House of Representatives and be agreed on by both chambers in conference committee in order to pass.

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That’s no small set of hurdles, and most bills in a legislative sessions don’t make the cut.

SB 3252, however — which would make it easier for the public to get copies of public records from government — passed in the final days of session with unanimous support. It’s encouraging that the Legislature feels so strongly about a basic public right.

There is now just one more step for the bill to become law: approval by Gov. David Ige. He has until June 27 to say which bills he’s thinking about vetoing and until July 12 to veto, sign or let bills become law without his signature.

SB 3252 is long-overdue common sense legislation that would help correct an unfortunate pattern in state and county government: the charging of exorbitant fees by agencies to copy public records when requested by individuals, public interest groups and the media.

SB 3252 would put a limit on reproduction costs, which include not only producing copies of records but the staff time that goes into the work.

Hawaii makes it very costly and difficult to obtain public records. Senate Bill 3252 could go a long way to make it easier. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2013

Copying fees would be waived entirely for producing them in electronic format, and — most critically — when the public interest is served by disclosing the records.

SB 3252 would also allocate $185,000 to the state Office of Information Practices — the agency that administers the Uniform Information Practices Act requiring open access to government records — to hire two full-time workers to help OIP in fiscal year 2022-2023.

A Resistant Administration

The big concern, though, is that Ige may be swayed by his own department heads to kill the bill. While some were mildly supportive of its intent, several departments — including the Attorney General’s Office — opposed the bill in the final round of public testimony in April, and many agencies proposed amendments.

“The unfortunate reality is that the department and its programs do not have dedicated staff or resources to respond to records requests; time spent on responses interrupts the completion of regular duties,” wrote Cathy Betts, director of the Department of Human Services.

Libby Char, chair of the Department of Health, wrote, “Complex requests are time-consuming and resource-intensive, and divert state employees from their daily tasks.”

OIP itself warned that SB 3252 could “encourage the filing of more complex and voluminous record requests.”

Several agencies within the City and County of Honolulu also raised similar issues.

Such arguments are off base and really don’t hold water. Are department heads really intimidated by the public wanting access to their own records? There’s no evidence to suggest that agencies are being bombarded with public records requests to begin with.

Brian Black, executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, regularly studies the flow of public records request to state and county agencies. In a June 6 letter to Ige urging SB 3252’s approval, he noted that requests made by public interest organizations “account for a very small number of requests annually. Typical of most years, in FY 2021, such public interest requests accounted for less than 5% of all requests.”

Black also pointed out that a random survey of states including Hawaii on public records just two years ago found that Hawaii agencies charged more than twice any other state in the survey.

“Many jurisdictions have clear statutory language that public interest requests will not be obstructed by government fees,” he wrote.

Organizations that perennially advocate for open government like the League of Women Voters of Hawaii, ACLU Hawaii and the Society of Professional Journalists Hawaii Chapter are also urging Ige to sign the bill.

Stirling Morita, the SPJ president, wrote that the bill would “discourage attempts by agencies to use high fees to frustrate news media looking to shine a light on agency operations.”

Civil Beat has experienced such attempts firsthand. In 2012, DHS asked for $123,000 to look at all public records requests it had received in just the previous year. In 2016, the Department of Public Safety wanted to charge $23,000 to provide records on violence involving Hawaii inmates at an Arizona prison that should have been readily available.

Civil Beat is hardly the only organization frustrated in its records requests. In 2019 the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported that DPS said it would cost more than $1 million for it to release data related to keeping inmates locked up beyond scheduled release dates.

And it’s not just the media that are working in the public interest. The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest identifies several relevant and timely examples on its website:

“The Sierra Club wanted more information about Red Hill from the Department of Health. Kilakila O Haleakala wanted to know more about efforts by the University of Hawaii to politically influence a hearing related to a telescope on Haleakala. Center for Food Safety wanted more information from the Department of Agriculture about testing at GMO agricultural fields. The Education Institute of Hawaii wanted more information about Department of Education finances. The Grassroot Institute of Hawaii wanted more information about alternatives that the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation considered after a funding shortfall.”

It’s Taxpayer Money

Making it easier for the public to find out what elected officials are doing and how government agencies are handling the public’s business is more important than ever.

“Across all sectors of government, this bill will empower the community to shine a light on government officials and make it harder for the corruption, incompetence, and inefficiency that thrives in the shadows,” Black wrote. “Unsurprisingly, agencies oppose the bill as the agencies would rather keep the public in the dark.”

In his testimony, SPJ’s Morita wasn’t buying the agencies’ gripe that they would be unduly burdened by requesters.

“While we understand the worries stated by government agencies, we note that the salaries of employees to handle such requests are already paid for by taxes we all pay. We do not believe that this measure would make a big dent in agencies’ budgets.”

Ige himself has recognized the importance of making public records available whenever possible. In a candidate Q&A in 2014, in his first run for high office, he was asked the following: “Would you support eliminating search and redaction charges and making records free to the public except for basic copying costs?”

Ige’s response: “Yes. We need to limit charges to basic copying costs.”

It’s time to hold him to that.

Contact Ige to let him know your views on SB 3252, and be sure to include the bill number in your email.


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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, 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)

Doubt he will sign it. He suspended the Sunshine Act laws due to Covid.

Stosh · 3 months ago

Real problem is not the copying costs. Hello? We are in the 21st century. Why do they have paper records? What a joke of a Department of Health!

NoFreedomWithoutObligations · 3 months ago

Based upon the Governor's record to date it is unlikely that he will not "blow it" yet again. The good gentleman marches to the beat of a different drummer, one who habitually loses the beat.

Peter_Bishop · 3 months ago

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