A commission to increase government transparency is set to vote on several measures Wednesday that would reduce the cost of public records, archive government board meetings, subject lawmakers to term limits, require certain legislative groups to abide by open meetings laws and require the state Office of Elections to publish a voters guide.

The proposals comprise the first round of bills that the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct could recommend to the Legislature, which opens its next session in January. The House convened the commission after two former lawmakers were charged with taking bribes to influence legislation, just a piece of what has become one of the largest public corruption cases in state history.

One of the commission’s goals this year has been to restore public trust in government.

“The strength and stability of our democratic government rely upon the public’s trust in government institutions, including the expectation that officers act ethically with prudence, integrity, and sound judgement,” the preamble to each of the commission’s proposed bills says.

Capitol building.
The Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct will debate bill proposals regarding government records, open meetings and elections. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The commission is required to submit a report describing bills that it believes lawmakers should enact to beef up Hawaii’s elections and ethics laws, among others.

Two of the bills the commission is set to consider on Wednesday – dealing with public records and open meetings — are almost carbon copies of proposals that Gov. David Ige vetoed over the summer.

Senate Bill 3252 would have greatly reduced the cost of public records fees and would have waived all fees for records requests made in the public interest. Those are the types of requests the media, public interest and watchdog groups make of government. The measure won unanimous support in both the House and Senate earlier this year.

Ige vetoed the bill over perceived negative impacts to state departments. The governor worried that offices could become inundated by broad and vague requests for records. He also worried about added costs and adequate staffing to fulfill those records requests.

“There may be more UIPA lawsuits, which will increase costs to government agencies through awards of attorneys’ fees and costs to plaintiffs filing those lawsuits. As a result, agencies may be forced to choose between responding to records requests and performing their regular jobs,” the governor wrote in his rationale for vetoing the measure.

The governor later insisted that the pandemic and additional records requests that followed further burdened state agencies.

Brian Black, executive director of The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, has rebuffed the Ige administration’s claims that SB 3252 and measures like it could add to the cost of government. State rules also allow agencies to slow their response times to large requests.

Black welcomed the new proposal from the standards commission to reintroduce the bill and said that Ige’s decision to veto the measure was “misguided.” Ige’s final term ends in December, when a new governor will be sworn in following the Nov. 8 general election.

“I wholeheartedly support the commission putting this open records bill back on the agenda,” Black said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

The commission is also set to take up a bill similar to Senate Bill 3172, which would require public agencies and commissions to archive recordings of their meetings. The measure would also require boards to timestamp meeting minutes to show when discussion on certain topics took place during the recording.

Ige vetoed SB 3172 because he said it could place an undue burden on smaller boards and agencies that may not have the resources to record and archive meeting recordings along with detailed meeting minutes.

During the legislative session earlier this year, the state Office of Information Practices also noted other concerns with the bill, including Americans with Disabilities Act requirements that could mandate that agencies provide the meeting recordings in accessible formats.

The preamble to the proposed bill says that meeting recordings are meant to help people who aren’t able to attend meetings at the time they are held or don’t have the technology readily available to access those meetings.

Earlier this year, Gov. David Ige vetoed a bill requiring government boards and commissions to archive videos of their meetings. Screenshot/2020

SB 3172 had support from groups like the Law Center and Common Cause.

The commission is also looking at a separate bill that would apply certain sections of the state’s open meetings law to “legislatively appointed bodies” including task forces, special committees, or select committees whose members are comprised entirely of state lawmakers.

Those types of committees are few and far between — some examples include the Senate’s special committee on Covid-19 from 2020 and the House’s special committee last year tasked with investigating two state agencies and the auditor’s office.

But the bill stops short of mandating that the Legislature subject itself to the Sunshine Law.

Nikos Leverenz, a Common Cause Hawaii board member and member of the commission, said that much of how the Legislature conducts its meetings is set by internal rules.

Lawmakers also raised practical issues if the Legislature were subject to all provisions of the sunshine law. For example, the public meetings law requires agendas to be posted six days out from a public hearing — a hard deadline to meet given the Legislature is in session for just 60 days.

“The Legislature is on time constraints,” Leverenz said. “Even if they do take frequent breaks or longer breaks, it would be impractical for the sunshine law to be applied in a current legislative session.”

Instead, the bill requires that the Legislature convene a group every two years to gather public comments on how the Legislature can better apply the state’s Sunshine Law to itself.

The measure doesn’t go far enough for community activist Lynne Matusow.

“You must do more to have the legislators subject to the Sunshine Law. As the draft stands, it is no help to the public. You have not addressed conference committees, legislators making committee decisions behind closed doors, committee chairs having absolute authority in hearing bills or killing bills, etc.,” Matusow said in her written testimony to the commission.

“You won’t get all you ask for, so why not ask for the moon in the hope that legislators will address some of the items,” she continued.

The commission is also set to recommend a bill that would impose an eight-year term limit on state lawmakers by amending the constitution. Such amendments generally need to win approval on a two-thirds vote in both the House and the Senate. The amendment would need to be ratified by voters.

The proposal would not allow anyone, in their lifetime, to serve as a state lawmaker for more than eight years, which amounts to two terms in the Senate and four in the House. Under the bill, the years of service would carry over, so someone who spent two years as a state representative and became a senator could only serve for six more years in that senate seat.

Term limits have come up repeatedly on the campaign trail this election season as one way to stamp out corruption in government. However, others have argued that imposing term limits could reduce the number of lawmakers who have subject matter expertise in policy issues and areas of government.

The bill would only apply prospectively and would not boot lawmakers who have already served more than eight years. The eight year clock for lawmakers currently holding office would start at the time the amendment takes effect.

A final proposal also deals with elections. The commission’s bill would require the Office of Elections to publish a voter guide online. The guide would include brief statements by candidates as well as explanations for constitutional and charter amendments with sections laying out the arguments for and against each proposal.

The bill also requires the elections office to make the guide accessible to screen readers and to publish translations in Hawaiian, Chinese, Ilocano and Tagalog.

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