Open records laws are usually thought of as a way for the public to understand their government.

But a trove of internal communications and other reports released by the Hawaii Department of Health over the weekend contained a surprise: Government agencies file formal document requests, too, using the same forms as an average person.

On Feb. 4, Honolulu Department of Environmental Services Director Tim Steinberger filed his request for records pursuant to Chapter 92F of the Hawaii Revised Statues — the Uniform Information Practices Act. Steinberger asked for all state records relating to the Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill, including investigation reports, policies and procedures, internal communications, collected data and penalty calculations.

The request was filed two days after it was revealed at a public hearing about the January stormwater spill that state investigators had filed a report claiming the city and the landfill operator had violated clean water laws when they discharged water in a separate December 2010 incident.

Steinberger wrote in his request that it was being made “in part so that (the city) can avoid the situation it faced” at that Land Use Commission meeting: learning about its own culpability not from state regulators but instead from third parties who obtained the investigation report via a public records request.

“Given the circumstances that presented itself at the Land Use Commission, we thought that if there were other documents out there like this, that we would want to be privy to them,” Environmental Services spokesman Markus Owens told Civil Beat Monday after talking to Steinberger about the request.

Owens said the formal document request between government entities was not common.

State Environmental Management Division Chief Stuart Yamada said Monday that the city’s document request might have been partly motivated by retribution for the public meeting surprise, which he acknowledged was “an unfortunate mix-up.”

The city’s request — described by Yamada in an email to colleagues as an “everything” request — was met with an “everything” response.

But Steinberger didn’t get any special treatment. He had to wait two months, just the same way that news organizations did.

This weekend, he received the same 20 PDF documents as members of the media.

Read Steinberger’s letter and the internal Health Department communications about it here:

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