Kaua‘i’s openness trend parallels nation

Beginning today, the public across the nation will begin celebrating Sunshine Week to encourage more open government.

On Kaua‘i, Sunshine Law may be considered more a battlefield than a celebration.

Some island residents and county officials have found themselves locked in a lengthy battle over whether open government is a reality or an illusion.

The call for more accessibility first surfaced in 2002 when retired attorney Walter Lewis and Raymond Chuan, both North Shore residents, demanded access to the minutes of executive sessions of the Kaua‘i County Council from 2002 to 2005, after the confidentiality of the issues in the minutes had expired.

When the state Office of Information Practices determined the records were public and should be released, the two offered to pay $2,800, as requested by the county, to cover the cost of searching, editing and copying documents.

When the county could not identify the documents Lewis and Chuan wanted, they filed a lawsuit in December 2005, citing a violation of the Uniform Information Practices Act. That lawsuit is scheduled for trial in 5th Circuit Court this November.

“I have a continuing feeling the county council is not sympathetic to the purposes of the Sunshine Law,” Lewis said.

Kaua‘i County Council Chairman Kaipo Asing declined an interview to discuss Sunshine Law for this story.

Still, council members have emphatically asked for more public participation during government meetings.

Residents say they seek access to meeting minutes so they can analyze government operations better and work with officials to improve them.

County officials have said they also advocate open government but cannot share information on all issues due to liability.

Officials have cited a state law that requires that personnel — hiring, evaluation, dismissal and disciplining of county employees — and labor matters and litigation be discussed out of the public eye.

The Lewis and Chuan lawsuit is one of several filed against the county in which plaintiffs seek the minutes of closed meetings.

County officials said they have committed no wrongdoing, and have filed a lawsuit against the state agency.

The issue of trust and open government has dominated local politics, including last year’s election.

Last year, Carol Bain, an advocate of open government, cited a lack of trust between Kauai Island Utility Cooperative members and some KIUC board members.

Bain, who is currently running for one of three open seats on the KIUC board, warned trust will only erode further if KIUC failed to adequately inform more than 29,000 members about its operations.

The distrust grew over a series of newspaper articles in The Garden Island on what critics said was costly board-approved expenditures , including the purchase of mostly service vehicles, business trips and the use of KIUC properties.

KIUC leaders denied any wrongdoing and responded by providing requested information by e-mail, at board meetings and its Web site.

The issue of open government also dominated last year’s election campaign.

Some critics said the Asing-led council conducted far more executive sessions than any other council before him, an accusation strongly refuted by Asing.

In reality, the tallying of executive sessions began midway through the tenure of another council chairman and those numbers were added onto Asing’s watch, he said at an October 2006, political forum.

While councilmember JoAnn Yukimura has been an ally of Asing in the past, she offered that the executive session numbers appear artificially inflated by that fact.

In spite of the criticism, Asing has continued to welcome public comment, although he sets strict time limits on public comments to give all audience members a chance to speak.

Still, audience members have become annoyed because they want more time to fully explain their positions.

While county officials, including Mayor Bryan Baptiste, have seemly worked harder to keep their doors opened to public inquiries, the federal government has been seen as becoming more and more secretive, according to a national survey in www.sunshine week.org.

Americans increasingly suspect the federal government has become cloaked in secrecy — its leaders engaging in telephone taps, and opening private mail without court permission, according to a survey of 1,008 adults commissioned by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

The Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University poll found 69 percent of the people felt the federal government is either “somewhat secretive” or “very secretive.”

Some Kaua‘i critics harbored similar feelings toward the incumbent council members during last year’s election campaign, and rallied public support for their ouster.

Instead, most of the incumbent council members retained their seats, indicating a majority of the public felt they were trustworthy and made headway with Baptiste while governing the island.

• Lester Chang, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 225) or lchang@kauaipubco.com.

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