John Hill: Hawaii Agencies Flout The Law By Ignoring Maui Fire Records Requests - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

John Hill

John Hill is the Investigations Editor at Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at or follow him on Twitter at @johncornellhill.

They have much else to contend with, but when the government does not provide information, people come up with more sinister narratives.

So here’s the thing about Hawaii’s open records law – it’s actually a law, not just a suggestion.

You would never guess that from the way many of Hawaii’s public agencies treat the Uniform Information Practices Act or UIPA. We in the media who try to use it call it Yoo-Eep-Ah, a name as unwieldy as the process it entails.

In the immediate aftermath of the Maui fires, Civil Beat – and many other media outlets across the U.S. – started peppering Maui County and state agencies with records requests.

These agencies normally get 10 business days to respond. Hawaii law also provides that they get 10 extra days in the event of a disaster, which this clearly was.

The government does not have to actually produce the records by that deadline. It can simply send a “notice to requester” saying that it needs more time. Or it can cite an exemption in the law to producing the records, leaving the media outlet or member of the public with the choice of appealing it to the Office of Information Practices or in court.

But here’s the thing: some of our requests for information about the Maui fires have not even been acknowledged, even past the 20 business day deadline.

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For instance, we asked the Maui County Emergency Management Agency for all requests for assistance it submitted to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency from June 1 through Aug. 9.


We asked the state for its after-action report for the 2018 fires on Maui, which as far as we can tell has not been made public a full five years later.

We also asked the state for all situation reports prepared by HIEMA in advance of the high winds and potential for fire due to Hurricane Dora in August.

We wanted to see all requests for assistance submitted from HIEMA to the Federal Emergency Management Agency from June 1 through Aug. 9, 2023.

And we asked for activity logs in the possession of HIEMA showing preparations and response to the high winds and fires on Maui from Aug. 7 through Aug. 10.

Nada. Not even a notice to requester.

You might think that we should go easy on these agencies, which have so much to deal with in the aftermath of the fires. And that’s a legit perspective.

But honestly, how hard is it to send out a form letter saying you need more time?

And there’s a more important point – we’re not doing this for frivolous reasons. Our role is to inform people to the best of our abilities on matters of public interest. And I would venture to say there’s been nothing of greater public interest in Hawaii in the recent past.

Guess what happens when this kind of information is not released in a timely manner? People start coming up with their own explanations about what really happened. And oftentimes these theories are darker and more sinister than the truth — though of course we can’t know that for sure until it all comes out.

I had faith that laws had to be obeyed or there would be consequences.

So among all the other things the county and state governments are dealing with, they still might want to consider the effects on public opinion of not responding to questions.

The recourse for those of us who can’t get the government to follow its own law is highly unsatisfying.

We can ask the Office of Information Practices to intervene. People can appeal to the OIP if they think a record has been wrongly withheld, but this is different. In this case, one simply asks the OIP to remind the public body that it has a duty under the law to at least send a form letter within the required time.

Maybe, after a nudge from OIP, they send the letter. Or maybe they don’t. Then what? Go to court? See you in a few years.

I was so naive before I became a reporter almost four decades ago.

I thought all lawyers had to be smart because, you know, they made it through law school. I found it hard to believe that officials would lie to your face. And I had faith that laws had to be obeyed or there would be consequences.

During a five-year hiatus from my journalism career, I worked for the California Senate doing oversight of that state’s administration. Over and over, my colleagues and I found instances when state departments simply ignored laws passed by the Legislature. And nothing happened – at least until we pointed it out, and sometimes not even then.

When it comes to state public records law, UIPA is not bad. What sets it apart – and I want to stress that I have been a reporter in five different states – is how often it is flouted by public bodies. The Maui fires have just made that painfully obvious.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

Read this next:

Maui Fire Survivors Plead With County Council For Help And Accountability

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About the Author

John Hill

John Hill is the Investigations Editor at Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at or follow him on Twitter at @johncornellhill.

Latest Comments (0)

Despite the fact that it won't fast track your requests, I say start the legal paperwork anyway. We need to hold those in our government accountable for their lack of following the law. They certainly don't delay in punishing us for our petty offenses.Penalties also need to be more than just a fine to that Department, because it's actually we the taxpayers that end up paying it. Individual personnel need to be held accountable through fines, jail time, and loss of employment.

PCDoctorUSA · 2 months ago

If you want info from HECO on their outages during certain time periods 😉 and they don't respond you can try asking FERC. If you're a lawyer and you use my information you owe me 1 million dollars for each request.

E_lectric · 2 months ago

There is a concept called "Occam's Razor" where in trying to answer a question, one should start by considering the simplest answer. It may very well be true that there was no "after action report" on the 2018 fires. Or, that there were no HIEMA situational reports related to Dora. Maui County Emergency Management Agency may have made no requests for assistance to HIEMA from June 1 through Aug. 9.At some point, we must consider that this was an epic failure of state and local government government officials with tragic consequences.

Downhill_From_Here · 2 months ago

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