The Hawaiian Sunshine Law (HRS Sec. 92) contains provisions that are of great importance to all citizens. The law declares that it is the policy of the state that the formation and conduct of public policy shall be conducted as openly as possible and that the intent of this policy is to protect the people’s right to know. Under these terms meetings of public bodies are, with limited exceptions, required to be open and government documents and records are to be made available to the public.
Despite these clear words, however, county officials are in many instances failing to carry out the mandated policy.
For example, under Section 92 the County Council is permitted to hold executive sessions in specified cases. But the law requires that the county release the minutes of such sessions when the need for confidentiality which justified the meeting no longer exists. It is noteworthy that the county has never voluntarily released any such minutes despite the passage of time or the occurrence of events that make them moot.
The quest that our citizens have for information frequently relates to areas where the government would prefer to avoid the spotlight. Where the need for information is the greatest the county seems to resist the most. In recent years the county has been increasingly involved in litigation which has necessitated the retention of outside counsel. The public has been understandably interested in learning about the authorizations by the council for services of such counsel, the amounts being spent under such authorizations and the settlements being made. The county has been less than forthcoming in responding to such inquiries. Another dark corner for the county has been the bike path. Citizens, whether or not they support the concept of the path, have been concerned about its costs, the integrity of the contracts being made, the apparent disregard of the county in obtaining requisite permits and the ultimate burden to be borne by the taxpayers. Questions directed to the county about these issues have not been sufficiently answered.
Governments exist to serve the public interest. If the public is not adequately informed it is often unable to determine where its interests lie. While the state law sets forth the general background for document retrieval by citizens, obtaining information is not an easy path. Complying with the statutory terms requires the completion of a complex county form with precision and may entail a substantial charge for getting a copy of the requested material. In addition in many instances the governmental body having the documents desired may be obstructionist in responding. You may be told that the information you want is set forth on the county’s Web site. Frequently the Web site material may be less than you had requested or at variance to your request. Or you may be informed that the county will not disclose the requested information because it violates some county policy. For example, a standard response from the County Attorney’s Office for information requests on amounts authorized or spent by the county on litigation is that disclosure would be “manifestly unfair” to present and potential litigants. The county obviously does not understand that it is “manifestly unfair” to taxpayers to keep them uninformed. Where the reason given for the non-disclosure is one of the statutory exceptions the withholding may be justified, but in many cases the justification offered to avoid a response is unwarranted.
The need for information extends beyond the desires of our individual citizens who in many cases do not have the inclination to meet the costs or engage in the effort required to be successful in gathering the data sought. The media covering county affairs which serves as a guardian of our rights of access is also at times stymied by the protection county officials give to information that should be made known publicly.
As is the case with other laws that regulate governmental conduct, the Sunshine Law is imperfect. For it to work as it was intended requires that county personnel accept its purposes and participate in providing information willingly and not acting in a manner adversarial to the public interest. Some of the offices of our county are cooperative about assisting citizens requests. The staff of the County Clerk’s office is notable in this regard.
Citizens should not have to incur significant costs, face complicated procedures, extended delays and resort to judicial action to obtain information about our government’s actions. In a county conference room there is a vision statement approved by the mayor that reads in part, “We seek to redefine public service, creating a local government which is increasingly accountable, fiscally responsible and user friendly.” It is time for the mayor to set the tone for county compliance within the spirit of that statement and in implementation of the Sunshine Law and demand that county officials and offices seek to serve public information requests expeditiously and comprehensively.
• Walter Lewis is a resident of Princeville and writes a bi-weekly column for The Garden Island.