For the third time this year, the Honolulu City Council was found to have violated the state’s open meetings law, according to an opinion published this week by the Office of Information Practices.

The law states that meeting agendas must be filed no later than six calendar days before the event. After that point, items cannot be added if they are “of reasonably major importance” and action taken would affect a “significant” number of people.

The council broke that rule when it added a bill relating to real property tax exemptions to the budget committee agenda five days before the Feb. 27, 2019 meeting, according to OIP. A resident named Brian complained to OIP that the topic of the bill was not “eligible to be added” because it “relates to property tax so it clearly is of significant importance and impacts a large amount of people,” the opinion states. OIP agreed, saying that the bill would reduce revenue from real property tax collection by a projected $10.3 million.

Honolulu City Council member Joey Manahan, Chair Transporation Committee and VIce chair of the finance commitee.
The Council Budget Committee, chaired by Joey Manahan, didn’t allow enough public notice, OIP said. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

“OIP further finds that thousands of homeowners were potentially affected by Bill 3 because Bill 3 proposed to increase the tax exemption amounts and thus lower the amounts of real property taxes that these homeowners would be paying,” the opinion states.

The bill was later referred back to the committee, which provided proper public notice at a subsequent meeting. Ultimately, it passed and members overrode a veto by Mayor Kirk Caldwell. 

It’s the second time within a few days that OIP issued a memo stating the council broke the Sunshine Law and the third such finding this year. A judge ruled in March that the council acted improperly when it “sunshined” an item about Mauna Kea onto its agenda in 2019.

“OIP cautions (the council) that most official legislative measures, either bills or resolutions, will rarely, if ever, fall within the scope of the insignificant matters that the Sunshine Law allows to be added to an agenda at a meeting by two-thirds vote of all members to which a board is entitled,” the opinion states. “This is especially true of those involving taxation.”

In a statement, City Council Communications Director Louise McCoy said the council will discuss the opinions with city lawyers and “will take appropriate action as advised.”

“The amendment to the agenda was not an attempt to exclude the public, but rather to place new matters as they come up, including amendments to bills and resolutions into the public view as soon as they come up,” she said.

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