Hawaii Gov. David Ige’s Empty Promises On Government Accountability - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Authors

Brian Black

Brian Black is the executive director of The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest.

Stephanie Frisinger

Stephanie Frisinger is the current legal fellow for The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest.

Like many politicians, Gov. David Ige styles himself as a proponent of transparency and accountability. On July 12, when he vetoed Senate Bill 3252, Governor Ige abandoned the smoke and mirrors.

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Ignoring a unanimous Legislature and a public demanding change, he walked away from any pretense of government accountability and solidified his reputation as a governor committed to keeping the public in the dark.

The people of Hawaii need the candidates running to be our next governor to commit to doing better. They need to commit to actively supporting SB 3252 next session.

SB 3252 would have made clearer that media outlets and nonprofit organizations cannot be charged hundreds or thousands of dollars for an agency to review public records before the records are released.

For instance, under SB 3252, if a reporter wants to examine building permit files or procurement contracts within the City and County of Honolulu to follow up on tips of bribery, the reporter would be able to do that for free. Other requesters — commercial entities, lawyers, and those who don’t have the intention and ability to educate the general public regarding the records — would still need to pay fees.

Existing law already provides for a “waiver” of fees for these “public interest” requests. When the Legislature allowed for fees in 1988, it explained that fees “shall not be a vehicle to prohibit access to public records” and called for enforcement to “move aggressively against any agency that uses such charges to chill the exercise of first amendment rights.”

Governor David Ige speaks during a press conference on Covid-19 at the Captiol.
Gov. David Ige had no rational reason for vetoing a bill that would have made it easier for the public to access government records. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The Legislature (including then-Rep. Ige) recognized that excessive fees as an obstacle to public access would be the easiest way for agencies to cover up incompetence or corruption and hide from public scrutiny.

But the attorneys general for the last 25 years have allowed agencies to intentionally abuse the fee structure by requiring prepayment of such high (and unjustified) fees — after giving a mere $30 discount — that public interest requesters routinely just give up the request.

If you went to the movies and were told that the admission fee would be waived, how would you feel if the theater demanded $10 at the door?

It is a discounted rate, but would you consider that a waiver?

SB 3252 simply would have clarified what anyone already knows: Waiver means no charge.

Embracing ‘Fear, Anxiety’

Back in 2014, Gov. Ige expressly supported limiting charges for public records to only copying costs — not only for public interest requesters, but for everyone. This gave the public hope for a more transparent government in Hawaii.

Then the pandemic happened. Gov. Ige embraced agencies’ fear and anxiety and declared that the public records law no longer existed. No other governor in the country did that — not one.

Who thinks that the public deserves less information during an emergency? It took months before the public got some measure of access back and a year and a half before Gov. Ige fully reinstated the law.

To justify his actions, he would claim that agencies received more public record requests during the pandemic than prior years. But, to Gov. Ige’s embarrassment, government agencies have been tracking information about records requests for years. The data completely contradicted the governor’s statements (state agencies: fiscal year 2019, 7,547 requests; fiscal year 2020, 5,604 requests; fiscal year 2021, 3,705 requests).

Gov. Ige’s explanation for his veto of SB 3252 is more of the same. First, he claims that the waiver would apply to “virtually all records requests.” If he had actually read the legislation and accompanying committee reports that emphasized the limited scope of the waiver — or if the attorney general had properly explained its effect to him — it would be obvious that the fee waiver does not extend to all requests.

Official reports of request data show that the waiver would apply to only 2% to 3% of requests. Even in a more inclusive review of public interest requesters, Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest calculated that the waiver would apply to only 5% of requests.

For someone who consistently references his professional training as an engineer when criticized, Gov. Ige’s lack of attention to detail and hard data is surprising — if he actually cared about transparency.

Next, Gov. Ige claims that agencies use fees to discourage requests. That is the precise reason why SB 3252 is necessary. The Legislature stressed that fee waivers serve the critical role of public records “to maintain government accountability and transparency and support citizen involvement in government decision-making.” Excessive fees for records means that only the rich and elite have access to information that influences how our government works.

Finally, Gov. Ige claims that agencies would have to pay overtime and disregard their normal duties to respond to record requests. The law, however, already provides that agencies may slow a response indefinitely if responding to a record request would unreasonably interfere with normal duties. It is amazing that the attorney general allowed Gov. Ige to make such a grossly inaccurate statement of law.

Gov. Ige had no rational justification for vetoing SB 3252.

The current candidates for governor must commit to government transparency and accountability. Too many examples of corruption and incompetence have rocked Hawaii in recent years. There is no better solution to such shady behavior than the light of public scrutiny and an informed electorate.

Specifically, candidates should commit to introducing and advocating for SB 3252 as part of the governor’s package of bills for the upcoming 2023 legislative session. After Governor Ige’s empty campaign promises, a vague pledge to increase transparency obviously is not enough.

The public should know exactly where the next governor stands on government accountability, starting with a commitment to getting SB 3252 through the Legislature and signed into law by this time next year.

Gov. Ige had no rational justification for vetoing SB 3252. His decision was motivated solely by fear of transparency.

Our next governor should not keep us in the dark. Be better — and perhaps find an attorney general who understands that government attorneys have responsibilities to both their client agencies and the public interest.

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About the Authors

Brian Black

Brian Black is the executive director of The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest.

Stephanie Frisinger

Stephanie Frisinger is the current legal fellow for The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest.

Latest Comments (0)

Very true especially for the next governor.David Ige (in my opinion), will go down as one if Hawaii's worst governors if not the natiion. Embarrassment. I never voted for him.

Stopthemadness · 10 months ago

I also note that despite the Legislature's unanimous passage of this bill, they apparently didn't really mean it, since they have been unwilling to meet to override the Governor's veto. No wonder the Legislature only gets a 22% approval rating.

JusticePlease · 10 months ago

Once again we owe a canoe filled with gratitude for Civil Beat, Brian and Stephanie for working on the behalf of the people of Hawaii.I do hope that the narcotic effects of false and empty political promises are starting to wear off on the voters of this state.

Joseppi · 10 months ago

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