One step forward, two steps back

Hawaii leaders should take notice: Everywhere you look, there are indications that people are losing patience with the current style of governance and the uncertainty of living under executive orders.

The opaque nature of the tier system and emergency orders raises an important question: Has the lack of real discussion over the management of the COVID-19 emergency led to greater fear and polarization? If so, that may be one of the biggest management failures of all.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus lockdowns, I have spoken frequently about the need for transparency. In part, I was referring to the governor’s suspension of open-records and sunshine laws, which frustrated the public’s right to know what their leaders were doing.

But I have also referred to another level of transparency: the need for those leaders to be open and accountable about the decision-making process in managing the pandemic.

We should know who is involved in making decisions, the data and reasoning being relied on, and whether there was an effort to consider other important factors, such as civil rights issues, privacy, economic concerns and so on.

In the normal course of governance, this is part of the legislative process. But the governor’s emergency powers have upset Hawaii’s constitutional balance, and the Legislature has refused to exercise any check on his powers as a super-legislator.

With no means to hold government officials accountable or exercise their voice, people understandably have become frustrated. Policies and decisions that should have been openly debated over weeks or months have become overnight mandates.

Sides are taken. Lines are drawn. And our trust in government — and even in each other — slowly erodes.

Dissent and criticism are part of the democratic process. They help us refine our ideas and highlight issues that might have been overlooked. Unfortunately, when there is no transparency in our governance, dissent and criticism must find other outlets, such as in protests and lawsuits.

One example can be found in this week’s episode of “Hawaii Together” on the ThinkTech Hawaii network. Joe Kent, Grassroot Institute of Hawaii executive vice president, spoke with attorneys Shawn Luiz and Kristin Coccaro, who along with attorney Michael Green are representing about 2,000 public employees — many of whom are first responders — in a class-action lawsuit that is challenging the mandatory vaccine requirement for state and county workers.

Luiz and Coccaro were quick to explain that this is not an anti-vaccine lawsuit. The issue, as they see it, isn’t the vaccine itself, but about the right to make your own choices.

“There’s no reason to just start regulating private healthcare decisions,” Luiz said. “Where does that lead? Does it lead to the government regulating other healthcare decisions for other types of illness?”

Notably, the governor’s emergency powers are at the heart of the problem. State workers only had eight days notice of the mandate, which their lawyers say fails to respect their fundamental rights and is far from the least intrusive way of achieving the goal of protecting public health.

As I watched Luiz and Coccaro argue that fears about catching the disease aren’t sufficient reason to require a state worker to get the vaccine, I wondered whether anyone was there to represent that position when the governor was working on his recent emergency order.

Was there a debate? Did the governor consider all viewpoints? Could we have reached a compromise that satisfied both sides?

All these factors may have been considered, but the problem is we just don’t know. The public has been left in the dark with a government decision-making process that is far from transparent.

Luiz agreed that there is a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the way that the emergency is being handled.

“I think there’s a lot of people that have issues with the governor of this state and other states just imposing their will on the people,” he said.

Citing Mayor Blangiardi’s campaign promise to help the economy and advocate for fewer restrictions, Luiz added, “We’re actually going backwards and it’s getting a lot worse. … It was one step forward, we started to open up, and now it’s two steps back.”

Nearly 18 months of rule-by-emergency-order has left us with more questions than answers. We need greater transparency and accountability from our leaders.

We also need real reform of the emergency management law, which was never intended to hand over power to the executive for months — and especially not years — on end.

Finally, we need to allow room for dissent and criticism. We may not always agree, but, in the words of American sociologist Larry Jay Diamond, “active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life,” is one of the principles of democracy.

The longer we delay in restoring our democracy, as well as our individual liberties, economic freedom and accountable government, the more we risk the future of Hawaii.

This commentary was Keli’i Akina’s weekly “President’s Corner” column for Aug. 21, 2021. If you would like to have his columns emailed to you on a regular basis, please call 808-864-1776 or email info@grassrootinstitute.org.

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