Council looks to limit ‘sunshine’

Kaua’i County Council members are meeting today, Thursday, Nov. 3, to consider a bill that would exempt them, and members of the Honolulu City Council and the Big Island and Maui county councils from the state’s sunshine law, or open-meetings law.

Members of the various councils are looking at whether to support the proposed exemption, and whether or not to include it as part of the Hawaii State Association of Counties’ legislative package for the 2006 legislative session.

The proposal also calls on members of each county council to establish open-meeting provisions by their own rules and procedures.

The state sunshine law requires council members to discuss public matters at public meetings, and requires, for instance, the posting of meeting agents and notices six calendar days before they are held.

Members of he state Legislature passed the law, which exempts state lawmakers from the law.

G. Riki Hokama, a member of the Maui County Council, reportedly said that county officials want the same type of immunity from the sunshine law, because they feel the law “detracts from their effectiveness.”

In an interview with The Garden Island, Kaua’i County Council Vice Chairman James Kunane Tokioka said he supports the bill primarily because “it would give us (the Kaua’i County Council) parity” with those in the state Legislature.

Tokioka, who said he advocates open government, said he would not back a bill that would lessen the public’s participation in public meetings.

Members of the council will take a look at the bill during a meeting at the historic County Building on Rice Street in Lihu’e today.

Members of the City Council of Honolulu and the three county councils must all agree to support the bill before it can be included in the legislative package.

Kaua’i County leaders are entangled in a lawsuit against officials in the state Office of Information Practices over whether to release minutes of an executive-session meeting in January in which discussions were held on a possible investigation of the Kaua’i Police Department.

Tokioka said passage of the bill would not amount to a “backlash” against OIP leaders. “Absolutely not,” he said.

Related to the lawsuit, Tokioka said he personally feels the names of folks brought up in executive sessions should not be made public, due to “confidentiality” issues.

Saying he spoke for himself and not necessarily for the rest of the members of the Kaua’i County Council, Tokioka said he feels the law sometimes restricts the actions of legislators in such a way that lawmakers “don’t know what they can talk about and what they can’t talk about.”

Tokioka said he would like to see the law amended so that the rules of engagement by legislators can be “clarified.”

Tokioka said he would not support a bill that would halt the practice of posting notices of meetings before they are held.

If anything, the bill should be strengthened to have people testifying at meetings confine their discussions to what is spelled out on public agendas, he said.

More common than not, people stray into other areas of discussion, lengthening meetings and not letting other folks testify, Tokioka indicated.

Tokioka said he would like to see the bill amended so that more than two legislators may introduce a bill and sign off on a bill.

The current system suggests that only a minority number of legislators initiated and supported legislation, when in fact all seven council members supported a measure from the onset, Tokioka said.

“This way, constituents will know exactly how their elected officials voted on a matter,” he said.

The situation came up when members of the council introduced a resolution to support the Hawaiians-first admissions policy at Kamehameha Schools, Tokioka said.

Tokioka, who is part-Hawaiian, joined six other council members in supporting the measure, but the resolution that was signed suggested only two legislators approved the measure.

Tokioka said he won’t support revising the law so that council members could meet socially, talk about a matter of public concern and forge a tentative decision on a matter before all legislators have had a chance to debate and discuss it, solicit public comments, and vote on an issue.

“We should never change the law so that we can talk in that way,” he said.

Les Kondo, who heads the OIP, said that all seven council members from Kaua’i could gather for lunch or for a dinner, and doing that would not constitute any violation of the law. A violation only occurs where the legislators discuss county business at such a gathering.

“If the vice chair is concerned about the misconception of people seeing three council members together, eating lunch, that isn’t a sunshine law violation,” Kondo said.

Kaua’i government watchdog Ray Chuan said approval of the bill would jeopardize the public’s right to participate at public meetings.

“I suspect this bill is something that the council would want,” Chuan told The Garden Island. “No question about that. Judging by the behavior of the council (in the OIP lawsuit), I only hope the Legislature will not go along with that.”

Chuan said that approval of the bill will create another barrier between citizens and the government. “I think it (approval of the bill) would be very unfortunate for the people,” he said.

Chuan said that, while members of the state Legislature are immune from the law, he believes the body, “by and large, is open-minded enough not to weaken the sunshine law and weaken the OIP through the move asked for by the councils.”

Approval of the bill will further “expose that they (elected county officials) are not working in the best interest of the public,” he said.

“There is no better example of this insidious move than the action of the current council,” Chuan contended.

He contends the problem of folks having more difficulty getting public information began nearly four years ago, when Kaipo Asing became chairman, and has seemingly discouraged sufficient public discussion at every turn.

Asing was not available for comment yesterday.

While Asing has been very blunt in reminding people to keep public testimony to a certain period or topic during public meetings, he has always allowed public members to speak on issues when they are tied to posted agenda items.

Related to the bill, Kondo said it is his impression that the “apparent justification (for the bill) is based on the lack of understanding or misunderstanding of what the sunshine law allows and does not allow.”

The law prohibits elected officials who gather at social functions from talking about county business.

They can talk about football or fishing, but they “can’t discuss county business outside of a council meeting unless there is an exception,” Kondo said. There are eight exceptions, he said, including one in which two (but not three or more) council members may discuss such business outside of a public meeting, he said.

Kondo said that council members “are elected officials, and they need to do that (discuss county business) in the public eye, and that is the policy of our statute.”

Kondo said those supporting the bill because members of the state Legislature have the exemption should look at their reasons for their stand.

“The Legislature deals with different issues than the councils do,” he said. “The Legislature deals with broad policy issues, and the county councils deal with issues that affect the day-to-day lives of people.”

Kondo said approval of the bill could mean further erosion of the public’s participation at public meetings if elected officials are granted an exemption to the law and are allowed to set up their own rules on public testimony.

Kondo also said the state sunshine law is not perfect by any means, “but it is all we have got, and that is what we live with.”

While past state legislators have rejected amendments to the law he and his staff have proposed, Kondo said he would still be willing to sit down with state and county legislators and go over any proposed amendments.

But any new amendments should not lessen the public’s right to participate at public meetings, Kondo said.

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