The Winds Of Change May Be Starting To Blow In An Otherwise 'Dark Time' - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Patti Epler

Patti Epler is the Editor and General Manager of Civil Beat. She's been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years, primarily in Hawaii, Alaska, Washington and Arizona. You can follow her on twitter at @PattiEpler, email her at or call her at 808-377-0561.

Hawaii Gov. Josh Green says he is embracing a new era of public openness in government, a welcome change from his secretive predecessor.

Gov. Josh Green is talking a good game when it comes to public records and making it easier to access them.

Now we just need to see if he’s serious.

It’s been great to hear him respond positively to a letter sent to him when he took over as governor by a coalition of 30 media organizations and good government groups. The letter lays out three proposals that would go a long way toward giving the public better access to government information. Simply summarized, they are:

• State agencies should automatically release public records unless there is a specific exemption or reason not to.

• Public records that are being sought to be shared in the public interest — generally by news media or nonprofits — should be free.

• The Office of Information Practices should be fixed. It has become arguably anti-open records and regularly takes at least two years to get back to people who appeal a decision or need an opinion on the public records law.

We sent a similar letter to Gov. David Ige in 2014. That one did not include a plea to fix OIP because the so-called public information office was not nearly as messed up as it is today.

Ige gave our proposals little more than lip service. He took no action as governor to make public information easier to obtain.

In fact, over the eight years of his administration he proved that he didn’t care — or worse — about public access to government, even suspending the public records and opening meetings laws for a considerable time during the pandemic — a period when people needed to know more than ever what their public officials were doing to keep them safe. Ige infamously was the only governor in the country to take such draconian action.

As one of his last acts as governor, Ige vetoed a bill that had received unanimous legislative approval making public records available at no charge other than actual copying costs — if the request was in the public interest.

  • A Special Commentary Project

Currently, news organizations and nonprofits are paying hundreds if not thousands of dollars for public documents to be located, often a harder task because of their own archaic storage practices, and then heavily redacted by some government clerk or assistant attorney. In essence, we are paying a lot of money to have them black out the very information we want. It makes no sense.

Green at least is signaling that he will be a friend to the public when it comes to openness and transparency. At last week’s State of the State address, Green became the first of our elected leaders to make government accountability and reform an element of his administration’s proposals for the coming legislative session.

“I have directed our new Attorney General to take seriously corruption and ethics reform in state and county government,” he said, part of a longer riff on the importance of transparent and accountable government. “I agree with the recommendations of the House Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct — it’s time to ‘rebuild integrity and trust in government.’ I look forward to working with the Legislature on taking this course of action, and I will sign any common-sense legislation that achieves meaningful ethics reform in state government.”

Gov. Josh Green is saying all the right things when it comes to making government more transparent and accountable to the public. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

After the speech, in an interview with reporters, Green elaborated. When asked if he was open to the ideas put forward in our coalition’s letter, he said:

“More than open to it. We’re embracing it.”

“Yes, we want to be transparent. We want government records to be available simply. And I have no interest in charging, like it has been done historically, these exorbitant rates for copies.”

He noted that sometimes a state agency doesn’t have the staffing to drop everything and spit out a public records request. “And if it’s a big job, I don’t want people to not get their jobs done, but we’ll do everything we can to restore trust in government because it’s been a bit of a dark time.”

Since Green’s speech, more than 150 bills addressing improvements in open records, public meetings and just the basic flow of public information have been filed, including 28 bills and three resolutions that came from the special commission.

Brian Black, executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public interest, helped our coalition draft the letter to Green. He’s encouraged by Green’s response.

“This is a significant commitment and exactly what we asked for from the Governor,” Black says. “Now it will be important to maintain the momentum as relevant bills move through the Legislature.”

I’m encouraged too. But I’m also keeping a close eye on what actually happens as the Green administration continues to get its feet on the ground and the coalition’s proposals get run through the legal gantlet of the Attorney General’s Office and face anticipated pushback from Cheryl Kakuzu Park, the director of OIP, who among other betrayals of the public interest has long pushed to increase public records fees, not eliminate them.

“This is a significant commitment and exactly what we asked for from the Governor.” — Brian Black, Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest

One troubling sign of what’s to come: The governor’s newly signed emergency proclamation aimed at fast-tracking housing construction as a way to deal with homelessness and the high cost of living suspended numerous state laws seen as getting in the way of progress.

One of those is the Hawaii Sunshine Law, which allows people to participate in open meetings where they can voice their opinion on government decisions. The proclamation’s caveat is that the suspension of Chapter 92 is only for “notice requirements” that might delay an expeditious vetting and decision process, and he didn’t suspend the Uniform Information Practices Act, our state’s public records law, as Ige did during the pandemic.

I’m also waiting to hear what he does with OIP, once he figures out what it was supposed to do and what it’s really become. We have long advocated that Park, the director, needs to go. That would be the best thing Green could do to save OIP from the mess she has made in the decade she has been running the show.

Still, I’m willing to give Green some runway here as he allegedly embraces easier access to information that the public needs to understand how its business is being done and whether leadership is ethical and effective. He can do a lot that doesn’t need to be run through the Legislature; other governors in other states have issued executive orders strengthening the release of public information, for instance.

I just hope it doesn’t take too long. The public’s patience is being seriously tested here.

Read this next:

The Democratic Party Platform Calls For Serious Government Reform. So Why Are Democrats Reluctant To Do It?

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About the Author

Patti Epler

Patti Epler is the Editor and General Manager of Civil Beat. She's been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years, primarily in Hawaii, Alaska, Washington and Arizona. You can follow her on twitter at @PattiEpler, email her at or call her at 808-377-0561.

Latest Comments (0)

How about naming specific legislators doing good or bad. Hold their feet to the fire. If we see their names in print we can vote and hold them to campaign promises.

CharlieDelta · 1 month ago

Please, keep up the pressure!We are so very fortunate to have Civil Beat in the islands.Honest news about very important issues!

RexDubiel · 1 month ago

Can CB provide additional insight into the current transparency standards and practices for City and County of Honolulu? I’m not sure how the current standards compare and contrast to the state’s pivot. Is there an opportunity to bring more transparency to C & C governance practices, too? Ex: CB was steadfast in its efforts to acquire open records for Ms. Jan Yamane, Hawaii State Auditor. Records, once obtained years later, highlighted the actions that led to her firing. A golden parachute of sorts, not long after her firing quietly by Legislative action, landed her in the Executive Director role for the Ethics Commission, City and County of Honolulu. With transparency in government, the public can engage in a more timely manner around what appears to be questionable decision-making practices. In response to the OIP obtained documents, the C & C Ethics Commission Chair discounted the value of the OIP obtained findings from the State AGs office. This can be a case study for creating greater and more timely access to public records. Public officials will also need to embrace its value for it to be effective. We can do better than this, Hawaii.

Jessie_3333 · 1 month ago

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