An important provision of the state Sunshine Law requires that meetings of the Kaua‘i County Council must, except for certain limited matters, be open to the public and, under council rules, the members of the public are to have the right to speak on any agenda item.
When the Office of Information Practices, the state agency responsible for interpreting the Sunshine Law provided rulings critical of certain council practices, the council chair disdained the OIP decisions and orchestrated a lawsuit against the OIP. A legacy of the present council chair is that the precious democratic rights embodied in the Sunshine Law have, to a major extent, become a mockery.
Before the advent of Mr. Bill “Kaipo” Asing to the council chair typically many of the 68 council chamber seats were filled with citizens who wished to give testimony on matters presented or just to audit the proceedings. The contributions from these dedicated citizens frequently served to assist the council members in their deliberations on the county issues being considered. But years of indifference or hostility to those in attendance have taken their toll. With frequent executive sessions from which the public is excluded, meetings lasting as long as 12 hours and having the subject of interest to attendees often delayed until late at night, public interest has waned. The intolerance of the chair to public testimony, particularly when it runs counter to his views, is shown too frequently in caustic or impolite remarks to the person speaking. It is a sad reality that at this time typically there are no citizens in attendance throughout a council meeting and often there is not more than one member of the public who speaks at council sessions.
Even when the Council has scheduled public hearings on important topics for the island and its people such as affordable housing or vacation rentals the number of citizens now appearing is modest. Coverage by the media of council meetings has also dwindled. In earlier years there were often representatives of the three newspapers in circulation on the island at the council sessions. At present many council meetings are unattended by the press and when there is media attendance it is usually limited to incomplete coverage of one item only.
It can be argued that the public has the opportunity to observe the Council proceedings because they are televised on Ho’ike. While this is true and of value, it is only by actual attendance at the meetings that there can be interaction with council members and the making of public commentary that viewers of the session by television should have.
I regret having to be critical of Mr. Asing. He served the county faithfully and well before he became council chair four years ago. But in my opinion, after becoming chair, his performance has not been in the best interests of the county or its people. On two occasions last year he used the prerogatives of his position to make hour-long Power Point presentations containing unwarranted criticisms. The persons affected were given no chance for a response. The vacant council chambers chairs at council meetings mutely testify that the council made an unwise choice when they selected their chair and a re-examination of their choice could well be desirable.
A re-evaluation of the purposes and operations of our council is also badly needed. Obviously council meetings are too long with procedural matters of limited importance taking far too much time. Marathon sessions should be avoided and, if necessary, more frequent meetings should be scheduled. Public hearings need to be scheduled at times convenient for our citizens and given much more prominent notice so that those interested in the matter involved will be more likely to learn of them. Council members should be responsive to relevant questions directed to them instead of refusing responses. While the three-minute rule may at times be necessary to limit cumulative testimony, if a citizen offers the council written testimony on an item, he or she should be permitted to present it at the meeting without an arbitrary time limit. The council should comply with the intent of the Sunshine Law and accept and practice the rulings by the OIP. It should avoid secret executive sessions except where they are clearly necessary.
I urge that the County Council members and interested members of our citizenry should work together to improve the function of the council so it may be more effective and user friendly in carrying out the legislative requirements of our county government.
• Walter Lewis is a resident of Princeville and writes a bi-weekly column for The Garden Island.