The high cost of public records and problems with the Office of Information Practices are on the governor’s mind these days.

Editor’s note: The governor spent 90 minutes with the Civil Beat Editorial Board and several reporters last week in a wide-ranging question-and-answer session. In this article, we’ve broken out his comments on government reform, transparency and making his own administration more accessible as part of our “Let The Sunshine In” special commentary project.

Gov. Josh Green says he intends to use the power of his office to make state government more open to Hawaii citizens, including making changes at the state office that oversees public information if it continues to perform badly.

Green has said since taking office in December that he will sign a bill aimed at reducing the cost of obtaining public records if the Legislature sends it to him.

But last week, at a meeting with the Civil Beat Editorial Board, the governor stepped up his support for transparency and accountability, saying, “Where I have the capacity to act with executive order, I will strongly position ourselves to do that.”

One issue on Green’s radar is the high fees some agencies charge to produce public records, including sometimes charging thousands of dollars just to find the documents in various agencies’ often archaic and cumbersome filing systems, reviewing them and blacking out information the agency decides shouldn’t be released. And there are copying fees.

House Bill 719 would cap copying fees at 25 cents a page with no charge for electronic copies. Search and redaction costs would remain where they are now and still apply to commercial interests, including attorneys seeking records for lawsuits and data marketers. But fees would be waived for records that are being used to provide information aimed at furthering the public’s understanding of issues or government operations, such as those requests made by news organizations and many nonprofits.

  • A Special Commentary Project

The bill, which is headed for a full vote in the House, is similar to a measure passed unanimously by the Legislature last year but vetoed by then-Gov. David Ige.

“First of all, we’re going to see whether the Legislature gives us some meaningful laws, which I will sign,” Green says.

Beyond that, Green says he is working with Attorney General Anne Lopez to try to ensure that state agencies make records as easily accessible as possible.

He recognizes that some agencies have been testifying against HB 719, concerned that making documents cheaper will mean more people will want to access records, which would mean more work for agency staff. Green acknowledges that some agencies are understaffed and that occasionally someone comes along who makes an unreasonable request.

That’s rare, he concedes. But still, “there has to be some standard that they have to do their job.”

“But as governor there is going to be a fair amount of direct prerogative that I will express to all of our team. And it’s probably most important at this point that I’m on the same page as our attorney general, because she’s going to be the one that has to make sure these guys get there.”

He’s got an idea that records that would have high public interest be kept in folders or binders where the public and press could just stop in and look at them.

Green is not sure yet what documents that might include, but other states often keep things like budget documents or supporting material for legislative proposals and administration initiatives readily available.

“I think that people want to see the actual documents that are going into the bills and maybe the amendments,” he says. “The process at the end of the legislative session has been historically very opaque … So that’s not really good.”

Gov. Josh Green says he will work closely with Attorney General Anne Lopez to craft new policies for open government under his administration. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022)

He says Lopez has already started working with the departments to do that. “And that just seems like a no brainer.”

“I can also, I believe, instruct people to not charge for access to documents, copies and whatnot, which though it’s not the largest number, it is an impediment because people just give up hope. They figure they can’t do it. So we will move on that,” he says.

One agency that Green says he is keeping a close eye on is the Office of Information Practices and its director, Cheryl Park. The OIP oversees the state’s Uniform Information Practices Act, or public records law, as well as the Sunshine Law that guides open meetings.

Park and the agency have drawn fire from good-government groups and others, including the Civil Beat Editorial Board, for often opposing measures that would make it easier for the public to access government information and records. OIP opposes HB 719, for instance, and has for several years proposed a significant increase in the fees agencies would be able to charge for documents.

More importantly, OIP has fallen behind on another role it plays — reviewing denials of public records requests. A recent report by the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest found that OIP now takes more than three years on average to decide whether a public record should be released.

“I do not think OIP is doing its job,” Green says. “I don’t think that they’re doing enough. And that has to change immediately or else we’ll have to make changes.”

Green says he’s encouraged that lawmakers have already moved forward a number of government reform measures. Dozens of bills that were proposed by the House Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct, the State Ethics Commission, the Hawaii Campaign Spending Commission and others have survived hearings in both the House and Senate and are about to switch to the opposite chamber for consideration.

Green points to new restrictions on fundraisers and donations that flow mainly to incumbents but also some challengers while the Legislature is in session.

“Already you can see we’re moving away from that kind of pay-to-play politics it seems,” he says. “So we’ll make progress. And you should hold us to account.”

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