The following testimony was submitted by the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii for consideration Feb. 17, 2022, by the Senate Committee on Judiciary.
To: Senate Committee on Judiciary
Senator Karl Rhoads, Chair
Senator Jarrett Keohokalole, Vice Chair
From: Grassroot Institute of Hawaii
Ted Kefalas, Director of Strategic Campaigns
RE: SB2916 — RELATING TO EMERGENCY POWERS
Dear Chair and Committee Members:
The Grassroot Institute of Hawaii would like to offer its comments on SB2916, which would prohibit the governor or mayor from suspending requests for public records or vital statistics during a declared state of emergency.
Transparency is the best way to ensure accountability in governance. This bill makes it clear that the government’s responsibility to the people does not take a hiatus in an emergency.
Those who are concerned that this proposal would hinder government agencies from carrying out their duties in an emergency need not worry. Hawaii’s open-records statute already addresses that possibility by providing flexibility to agencies that require an extended time to respond, as in a delay caused by an emergency. Thus, any suspension of open-records laws by the governor or mayors is 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 policy brief “Lockdowns Versus Liberty,” we looked at how the state’s emergency-management law could be reformed in light of the lessons learned during the COVID-19 lockdowns. One of the points made was that government transparency is even more important in times of emergency, since a lack of accurate information about government decision-making can lead to a loss of public trust.
Open government is not only at the core of our constitutional principles, it is also essential to uphold public faith in the decision-making of our leaders and the democratic process.
We understand that the executive needs leeway to handle an emergency as needed, but 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.
Hawaii’s experience with the COVID-19 lockdowns has raised important questions about the scope of executive power under the state’s emergency-management statute. This bill, if enacted, would be a good start toward protecting civil rights and open government during an emergency.
Thank you for the opportunity to submit our comments.
Director of Strategic Campaigns
Grassroot Institute of Hawaii