Let the sun shine in

With a new governor and a new Legislature now in place, Hawaii’s leaders have the opportunity to make a bold statement for government transparency and accountability.

The only question is whether they have the political will to do so.

Given the various scandals that have rocked Hawaii in recent years — such as the mailbox conspiracy, which cast a shadow on the Honolulu Police Department, and the admission by two prominent legislators that they had accepted bribes — it is no surprise that Hawaii residents lack faith in the integrity of state and local government.

If corruption can thrive despite the existence of multiple oversight and ethics agencies, then we need something stronger. In other words, we need sunlight.

As the saying goes, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” so one important way to help restore Hawaii’s lack of trust in government is more sunlight — that is, more transparency in government.

Who can forget the fact that Hawaii was the only state to suspend its open records law during the pandemic?

At the time, government watchdog groups warned about the ramifications of then-Gov. David Ige’s anti-transparency order. But we have never explored what it revealed about the state’s attitude toward transparency in general: that transparency is an inconvenience, something that is an unnecessary part of government work, easily dispensed with in an emergency.

If that’s the position of the head of the state, it explains why it can be a struggle to get public records released.

As the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii and other public interest groups have learned firsthand, the success of an open-records request depends largely on the agency and people you contact. Some agencies are helpful and prompt in disclosing information. Some ignore you. And some send you six-figure estimates for your record search and copying.

Earlier this month, the Grassroot Institute was among two dozen community and media organizations that signed on to a letter to our new governor, Josh Green, asking him to “establish strong leadership supporting an informed electorate” via a series of executive orders to improve transparency.

The proposed orders included requiring a presumption of openness that discourages agencies from invoking exceptions to disclosure unless necessary, a change in the approach to record request fees, and guiding the state Office of Information Practices back to its intended role as a guardian of the public interest.

The governor’s initial response to the letter was positive, with a representative of his office promising the Institute that the executive branch will take transparency seriously and consider the requests in the letter.

I understand that transparency may not seem as urgent to the governor as Hawaii’s housing crisis, inflation, the economy or any number of other issues, but this issue should not be pushed to the back burner.

Gov. Green has an opportunity to make a strong statement for openness as his term begins. This will resonate through every state agency and go a long way toward improving the public’s trust in government.

Not only the governor needs to act. The Legislature can accomplish many of the same goals via laws that strengthen transparency.

Last year, it considered a bill that would prevent agencies from using high costs to discourage public record requests. It wasn’t passed, but this year it should be.

The Legislature should also stop any efforts to curb open records with new exemptions. Last year, it created a working group to study the possibility of a “deliberative process” exception to records requests. Given the opposition to such an exception from public interest groups, there is no place for such an exemption in an open and transparent Hawaii.

The governor and the Legislature can change the anti-transparency culture that has pervaded Hawaii government, but only if they make a strong declaration in favor of open records and sunshine.

Consider it part of our pandemic recovery plan. As a state, we aren’t going to be able to cure the bias towards secrecy without a strong dose of sunlight.

This commentary was Keli’i Akina’s weekly “President’s Corner” column for Jan 14, 2023. 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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