The following testimony was submitted by the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii for consideration by the Hawaii Senate Committee on Judiciary on Feb. 24, 2021.
To: Senate Committee on Judiciary
Senator Karl Rhoads, Chair
Senator Jarrett Keohokalole, Vice Chair
From: Grassroot Institute of Hawaii
Joe Kent, Executive Vice President
RE: SB134 SD1 — RELATING TO EMERGENCY POWERS
Dear Chair and Committee Members:
The Grassroot Institute of Hawaii would like to offer its comments on SB134 SD1, which would prohibit the governor or mayor from suspending requests for public records or vital statistics during a declared state of emergency.
We consider this bill a step in the right direction, and not only because the existing open records statute already provides flexibility to agencies that require an extended time to respond, as in a delay caused by an emergency — making any suspension by the governor or mayors unnecessary and redundant.
Early in the COVID-19 emergency, Gov. David Ige suspended Hawaii’s open records and sunshine laws — an extreme response that was not taken by any other state.
Not only did his action raise questions about the health rationale for the suspension, but it also undermined public trust in the workings of government at a time when that trust was needed more than ever.
In our recent policy brief, “Lockdowns Versus Liberty,” we looked at how the state’s emergency management law could be reformed in light of the lessons learned over the past year. One of the points made in that brief is that government transparency is even more important — not less — in times of emergency.
In fact, it could be argued that the lack of transparency surrounding government actions during the COVID-19 emergency created greater resistance to the regulations and guidelines being put in place by government officials. It is no stretch to say that a lack of information about governmental decision-making and processes leads to a loss of public trust.
While we understand that the executive needs leeway to handle an emergency as needed, that is not a carte blanche to suspend laws because they are merely inconvenient.
Instead, government actions during an emergency should be narrowly tailored to demonstrate a connection between the actions and the protection of public health or safety.
Open government is not only at the core of our constitutional principles, it is also essential to uphold public faith in our leaders, their decision-making and in the democratic process.
Hawaii’s experience with the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to reevaluate the state’s emergency management statute. This bill is a good start toward protecting civil rights and open government during an emergency.
Thank you for the opportunity to submit our comments.
Executive Vice President
Grassroot Institute of Hawaii