State lawmakers may soon have to deal with demands from the public for greater transparency on the part of legislators themselves.

The Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct on Wednesday unanimously agreed to present the 2023 Legislature with a proposal to guarantee citizens better access to the legislative process and better behavior between lawmakers and toward the public.

Jim Shon, a retired lawmaker and educator, introduced the proposal, a so-called “Citizen’s Bill of Rights” after seeing how business conducted at the Legislature has changed over the years.

“Everybody always talks about what bills pass or fail, but there’s many more elements that relate to respect, deference, and a willingness to treat each other appropriately,” Shon said in an interview.

Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct panelist Robert Harris conducts meeting. Left, Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct panelist Nikos Leverenz casts a vote.
The Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct, including Nikos Leverenz, left, and Robert Harris, on Wednesday approved a proposal to give citizens more rights at the Legislature. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

In just the last two years, some lawmakers have complained that they were bullied over decisions by other lawmakers. In another documented instance, a state senator was accused of harassing government workers.

Shon’s proposal seeks to institute a more civil Legislature. The proposal enumerates several rights including the right to fair treatment between lawmakers and the public, the right to oral testimony, the right to review written testimony and other official correspondence to the Legislature, and the right to inspect bill drafts submitted to lawmakers.

The proposal would join dozens of others that will be forwarded to lawmakers for consideration during the 2023 legislative session after the commission finishes its work in about a month.

Other parts of the proposal seek to address legislative practices that may seem esoteric to the general public but are critical to determining what bills pass and fail.

One of those is the use of what are called “defective dates,” or the dates bills would take effect that are set far into the future like Jan. 1, 3000. Bills that have closer dates, typically effective for Jan. 1 of the following year, can usually be sent straight to the governor with agreement from the House and Senate.

Defective dates have been used as a tool to make sure bills end up in conference committee, a clandestine series of meetings usually held at the end of a legislative session where bills either live or die.

The public catches glimpses of how bills are evolving during that time, but much of the discussion and negotiation surrounding proposals happen behind closed doors with little, if any, public input.

There are also provisions that require lawmakers to publicly debate the merits of proposals and also to conduct decision-making meetings out in the open.

That kind of transparency from the Legislature is something that political observers and activists who testified to the standards commission this year said they want to see more of. Members of the commission agreed that point needs to be made clear in the commission’s final report, due to be made public in December.

“A critical component has to be the consistent calls for greater transparency overall and visibility of an objective decision-making process,” Hawaii Ethics Commission Director Robert Harris, a member of the standards commission, said during the meeting.

The bill of rights measure also proposes creating a new Office of the Public Advocate that would oversee the Legislature and make sure citizens are being afforded the rights laid out in the bill. The office would also be able to investigate lawmakers and other officials if those rights are being suppressed.

Shon, who originally asked that the bill of rights proposal be enacted through the Legislature’s rules, is skeptical over whether or not legislators would put those proposals into law.

“I do not expect that they would automatically put that into law,” Shon said. But he hopes lawmakers will at least adjust some of their practices.

“The idea is to create a different culture of respect,” Shon said. “And in amending your rules, as new members come in, perhaps they would respect the rules.”

The standards commission was created earlier this year after two former lawmakers pleaded guilty to accepting bribes. One is serving a three-year prison sentence in Oregon while the other is awaiting sentencing, currently scheduled for January.

Read the bill below.

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