The Sunshine Blog: Free The Public's Public Records Requests - Honolulu Civil Beat

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The Sunshine Editorial Board

The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board focused on ‘Let The Sunshine In’ are Patti Epler, Chad Blair and Richard Wiens.

Short takes, outtakes, observations and other stuff you should know about public information, government accountability and ethical leadership in Hawaii.

Making public records easier for the public to access: The House Finance Committee on Tuesday unanimously approved a measure to limit the amount of money state and local government agencies can charge when documents are requested in the public interest. The bill now goes to the full House for consideration.

To recap: This is the measure that the Legislature approved unanimously last year but was vetoed by Gov. David Ige after much handwringing by several state agencies who insisted that not being able to squeeze exorbitant fees out of the public would put a huge burden on them.

This year the bill, House Bill 719, was put forward by the special Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct created by House leadership to come up with anti-corruption proposals and government accountability improvements. Gov. Josh Green has said he will sign the bill if it makes it to his desk.

Still, the heads of some state agencies continue to complain about it despite their boss’ inclinations otherwise. Several testified Tuesday as well as in writing that the floodgates will open and they will be overwhelmed by public records requests.

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Keep in mind, the fee waiver only applies to requests that are demonstrably in the public interest. That’s stated clearly in the bill: “records be provided at no charge to the requester if disclosure of the record is in the public interest because the disclosure is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the government and is not primarily in the commercial interest.”

Brian Black, the executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, testified Tuesday that last year those public-interest requests amounted to less than $5,000 in public records fees.

That certainly doesn’t seem like much of a burden for agencies to bear when, as the standards commission noted in the bill, “public records laws are a critical mechanism to maintain government accountability and transparency and support citizen involvement in government decision-making. The real-world consequences of restricting access to that information can range from serious to routine but, in all cases, result in a less informed citizenry. Fee waivers offer a simple and flexible solution.”

House Bill 719 would require agencies to waive fees for records that shine a light on government. (Civil Beat/2023)

In a flash, the voter guide marches on: Committee Chair Donovan Dela Cruz runs a tight ship, so it’s easy to miss a bill during one of his Senate Ways and Means decision-making-only proceedings.

But there it was, sandwiched between a proposed constitutional amendment on judge selection and a county tax bill: Senate Bill 1076 to get Hawaii back in the business of producing a voter guide before each election.

Chair recommends approval. Any discussion? Anyone voting with reservations? Anyone opposed? Nope, nope and nope. That’s how a lot of legislation moved ahead Tuesday morning, and the voter guide measure actually took a few more seconds than some of the others.

Ways and Means Chair Donovan Dela Cruz knows how to move a meeting along. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Dela Cruz punctually explained he was amending the bill at the request of the Office of Elections to specify that the Attorney General’s Office and Corporation Counsel translate ballot question statements into Olelo Hawaii, Chinese, Ilocano and Tagalog.

And this time there was no written testimony from the AG’s Office saying it didn’t want to be saddled with the task of summarizing proposed constitutional amendments — in English or otherwise. Its opposition based on conflict-of-interest fears helped kill another voter guide proposal, House Bill 716.

And so SB 1076 has passed another test. It was easy, perhaps too easy. After all, unlike all the other states out West, Hawaii hasn’t produced a voter guide since the state government was traumatized by a lawsuit almost two decades ago.

Mickey Mouse For president: The House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday kind of blew through an important public accountability measure — House Bill 1294 — that would require every candidate for public office to use their legal name for election purposes. Now, someone can get on the ballot in Hawaii using a fake name. That makes it very difficult for voters to find out much about that candidate, as happened in the 2022 elections in a state House race we wrote a bit about.

The House Judiciary Committee led by Chair David Tarnas, right, worked through a number of judiciary and public interest bills on Tuesday, including a lengthy debate on justice reform. (Screenshot/2023)

Written testimony on the bill includes this advice to lawmakers: “Hawaii needs to assure that we
avoid electing lying-Congressional-embarrassments like George Santos (or whatever his name
is) at ANY time in the future and this measure would accomplish this task.”

Blast from the past: The House Judiciary Committee has taken up the idea of a journalists shield law after it died 10 years ago at the hands of then-Sen. Clayton Hee. Who can forget the Hawaii Senate Judiciary chair mocking the very idea of democracy as he ridiculed the need for journalists to be able to do their jobs without being hauled before a judge and forced to turn over notes or reveal who they had been talking to.

But just in case you’ve never seen this, here’s a rare clip from the old days of legislative speeches before they figured out how to put a modern recording system in place:

Meanwhile, the House Committee moved this year’s version of the bill along, giving it an effective date well into the next century and thus ensuring it will end up being duked out in conference committee.

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About the Author

The Sunshine Editorial Board

The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board focused on ‘Let The Sunshine In’ are Patti Epler, Chad Blair and Richard Wiens.

Latest Comments (0)

Through taxes the public pays to create, store and maintain public records so why should they be charred for copies beyond the cost of the photo copy?

Harvey · 7 months ago

What is the effective date of HB719? Is it the year 3000, when all of us will be dead and all of the state may be under water due to climate change? I ask because recent finance committee agenda show the effective date for all bills to be the year 3000, though the month may change . If the house persists in this idiocy, perhaps the legislature should adjourn until the year 3000. So far the senate is using the year 2050.

lynnematusow · 7 months ago

"if disclosure is in the public interest". It's this why the request is made? "that the floodgates will be open and they will be overwhelmed by public record request". Isn't that your job description?

kealoha1938 · 7 months ago

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