Government transparency critical at all times

This commentary appeared originally in The Garden Island newspaper on Kauai, on May 5, 2020.

Ever since March 16, when Gov. David Ige issued his proclamation shutting down the state, the meetings and records of our state and county governments have been officially closed to the public.

The governor never said exactly why he was dropping the curtain on government transparency and accountability in Hawai‘i. The assumption was that somehow it would help the state and counties better deal with the coronavirus. But that still didn’t make it a good idea. Transparency is critical at all times, and even more so during an emergency.

Why is transparency and accountability in government important?

Philosophically, you can find its roots in the Enlightenment as an idea called “the consent of the governed.” In fact, the whole concept of the social contract implies some level of government transparency.

I like what John Adams said about this: “Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among people, who have a right and a desire to know.” In short, public access to the workings and records of the government is a safeguard against corruption, backroom deals, questionable accounting and other ills. It’s a check on fraud, waste and abuse.

Transparency also is a tool that helps citizens trust their government. It helps them determine whether the government is taking rational actions. For example, what’s the rationale for a property tax hike? How is the money currently being spent? Is it wasteful? Is it clear that the department that will benefit from the tax hike actually has a need of that funding?

Transparency is what answers these questions, and many others that the citizenry has a right and a responsibility to ask. You can’t be an informed voter or citizen without transparency.

Which explains my concern about the governor’s suspension of sunshine and open-records laws during the lockdown. Not surprisingly, we are seeing decisions being made without public input that are having substantial effects on our civil liberties and our economy. Every day there are new announcements about regulations that have just cropped up. Access to the process by which these decisions are made is essential to secure public trust and cooperation.

Now, I want to explain something. By raising these objections, it doesn’t mean that we don’t recognize a place for compromise in light of the health and safety issues that have to be addressed by the government.

That’s why we recently joined Common Cause Hawai‘i and about 40 other local groups and individuals in making recommendations to the governor to preserve open meetings, by using technology or by extending the deadline for records requests.

We are hopeful that the governor has listened and that reforms will be forthcoming soon.

Meanwhile, I’d like to remind you of something written by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.

In an article he wrote in 1913 in Harper’s Bazaar, a very popular magazine at that time, Justice Brandeis summarized the basic philosophy behind transparency with the following words: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” And that’s probably the greatest reason to have transparency and openness.

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