Public ought to know ‘how’

When government conducts business in the back rooms and public records are not readily available, the people suffer the most.

There are standards in the state of Hawai‘i that define such behavior as a detriment to the public good, that explain the damage that can ensue, and reasons why those standards should not be cast aside.

Here on Kaua‘i, we operate under a special brand of provincialism, far removed from enforcement agencies that require the public be alerted to open meetings requirements under the Sunshine Law and the availability of public records under the Uniform Information Practices Act.

If anyone doubts this assertion, look no further than the case of County of Kaua‘i vs. Office of Information Practices. In that case the county disregarded a demand by the OIP to release executive session meeting minutes and filed a lawsuit stating “the OIP can’t tell us what to do.”

And even if that were true (because it is not) how is the case going to serve the public good?

By spending hundreds-of-thousands of dollars to determine whether a Hawai‘i Revised Statute is legal?

If the county does win the suit, what good will come to the public … an emboldened county able to further snub its nose at a more open government? A weakened OIP?

The idea behind Sunshine is for boards, commissions, agencies, councils and counties left to uphold those standards, focus on serving the public and not themselves. Sunshine and UIPA are there as a guide for government to work toward a more open, efficient community.

On Kaua‘i, Sunshine Law is regarded more as a hindrance to conducting efficient government. “How can anything get done if we have to answer to everyone for what we are doing?” seems to be a theme.

Why all the effort to work against Sunshine here on Kaua‘i?

If a more open government can’t be envisioned here, history has many examples of what it can do to a society.

In those places, events occur such as mild intimidation from a police detective to an author of a letter to a newspaper. In those communities, when the author files a complaint to the local police commission, the commission may very well disregard it as not-able-to-be-proven, even if the editor of the paper had a correspondence over the matter with the detective. The member of the public, in the meantime, learns a hard lesson. When inquiries are made to the rulers of closed societies, no one comments or confirms, the system is strengthened, the community weakened.

Such simple acts may be a symptom of a much larger problem, and certainly garner distrust from the public, which they are mandated to serve.

In those places, the “powers that be” can practice sweeping judgments on who and where public funds should be spent with little public disclosure. And though governments are certainly able to spend large blocs of money and have huge budgets, customers here in the United States generally like to know where their money went. The question is not the spending of the money, but the “how” of the spending. Sunshine and UIPA are designed to reveal the “how” of the spending.

Kaua‘i County has a track record of keeping the “how” close to its chest.

Whose to say why that is the case. There are many layers of reasons.

The level of unfairness though, seems apparent.

It is increasingly difficult to know the “how” here for the public, as the county, among other things, indiscriminately approves large sums of money for litigation while not supplying the follow-up of how it was spent. The county hires lawyers for some its employees involved in lawsuits, while leaving others to find their own representation. If the public inquires to those reasons, the county generally refuses to answer.

The county has allocated millions of dollars over the last several years to hire outside counsel and will refer inquiries about “how” to the online state Judicial Web site Ho‘ohiki, which does not break down spending. Ho‘ohiki is not responsible for informing county residents how its council is spending its money.

The county recently settled a “whistleblower” lawsuit and refused to disclose the amount. Whether that settlement was justified or not, why refuse to offer the community a receipt for the money spent?

That does not serve the public good.

Look to the pages of The Garden Island this week as we play our role in serving the public good. As the state office of the OIP was created to serve the public in their right to access information, we will play our role in being the vehicle. We begin today by dedicating page A3 to accessing information, while offering some of the available public documents in our pages over the next week.

Is it the public’s right to know?


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