The following testimony was submitted by the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii for consideration March 23, 2022, by the House Committee on Government Reform.
To: House Committee on Government Reform
Rep. Angus L.K. McKelvey, Chair
Rep. Tina Wildberger, Vice Chair
From: Grassroot Institute of Hawaii
Joe Kent, Executive Vice President
RE: HCR146/HR146 — REQUESTING THE OFFICE OF INFORMATION PRACTICES TO CONVENE A WORKING GROUP TO DEVELOP A RECOMMENDATION FOR A STATUTORY STANDARD FOR THE TREATMENT OF DELIBERATIVE AND PREDECISIONAL AGENCY RECORDS
Dear Chair and Committee Members:
The Grassroot Institute of Hawaii would like to offer its comments on HCR146 and HR146, which propose the creation of a working group to develop the language of a “deliberative process” exemption from Hawaii’s open-records law, the Uniform Information Practices Act.
We have grave reservations about any effort to establish a deliberative-process exemption to the UIPA. Our concern is that such an exemption would be little more than a loophole by which state agencies could evade records requests.
This would frustrate the intent of the state’s transparency laws, which are meant to ensure accountability and discourage corruption by making government actions and deliberations available to the public.
As a research and government watchdog organization, the Grassroot Institute is well-acquainted with the mechanisms employed by government agencies to avoid disclosure. Based on that experience, we can attest to the fact that the exception would give agencies leeway to withhold nearly anything under the claim of “deliberative process.” Moreover, it would encourage agencies to conduct key government functions in a way that could shield them from disclosure.
Though the working group is meant to find some compromise between the duty to disclose and the agencies’ desire to withhold documents they deem “predecisional,” the inherent conflict between those interests as well as the ambiguity of the “deliberative process” guarantees more challenges and disputes. After all, most of the work done by government agencies is deliberative in nature and everything but a final decision or report can be classified as “predecisional.”
From the point of view of a government watchdog organization, a deliberative-process exemption would guarantee that requests to certain agencies will turn into endless battles over what, if anything, must be disclosed to the public.
It is not hard to imagine that some state agencies already notorious for their lack of openness will abuse the deliberative-process exemption to avoid fulfilling UIPA requests.
If government agencies are concerned about privacy or disclosures that obstruct their ability to carry out their duties, there already are exceptions in the law that would address such issues. There is nothing remarkable about the deliberative-exemption process in itself that warrants special treatment.
Given the need to restore public trust in Hawaii’s government, we believe that more transparency, not less, is the best route forward.
The Legislature is currently seeking ways to improve its own transparency and accountability to the people of Hawaii. This is no time to exempt government agencies from that same responsibility.
Under the circumstances, it would be a mistake to create a UIPA exception that would allow government agencies to hide their decision-making processes from the public.
Thank you for the opportunity to submit our comments.
Executive Vice President
Grassroot Institute of Hawaii