HONOLULU — When Hawai‘i’s open government office told the Kaua‘i County Council to reveal what it talked about behind closed doors in a January 2005 meeting, the council refused.
Now the case is stuck in court because the Office of Information Practices, which interprets the state’s openness laws, doesn’t have any enforcement power.
Government bodies throughout the state — from neighborhood boards to city committees — at times conduct business in private and fail to notify the public about what they’re doing, according to records compiled by the Office of Information Practices.
Usually these government agencies comply with opinions requiring more openness, but when they don’t, the only recourse is for a member of the public to go to court.
This is Sunshine Week, a nationwide effort to draw attention to the public’s right to know the activities of their government.
“There are those handful of times when a board or agency has decided to thumb their nose at what the Office of Information Practices has decided,” said OIP Director Les Kondo. “Agencies should be required to comply with our decisions.”
In the Kaua‘i County Council case, Kondo’s office ruled the council should give the public access to executive session minutes after it had discussed whether to conduct an investigation of the Kaua‘i Police Department.
The council protested, and the court case is still pending.
Out of 40 investigations conducted by the Office of Information Practices from 2004 to 2006, the open meetings law was not complied with at least 13 times, according to an analysis of state records.
Many of these violations occurred when a government body decided to meet in a closed executive session without good reason. Another common problem is when neighborhood boards neglect to specifically list what they will discuss at their upcoming meetings.
“There have been situations where the Office of Information Practices gives out an opinion or ruling and there’s really no way to enforce it,” said Sen. Les Ihara, D-Kahala-Palolo. “IT just doesn’t seem to have been a priority in the state to back up the public’s right to know with enforcement.”
Sometimes, a board won’t openly disobey an Office of Information Practices ruling, but it will take its time before complying, Kondo said.
For example, the office instructed the Board of Education last fall to disclose minutes from its Sept. 7 executive session in which it fired Jim Shon, the former head of the state Charter School Administrative Office. Those minutes still haven’t been released.
“It’s a natural tendency to do your business in private. But with a government board, that’s not how things are done,” Kondo said. “Open government is a bedrock and foundation for our form of government.”
Ihara said he has repeatedly introduced bills that would give the Office of Information Practices enforcement powers, but they have been shot down every time.
This year, several proposals are still alive in the Legislature that would more clearly define openness rules for government boards.
The measures would allow boards to have meetings even without a quorum, permit board members to attend another board’s informational meeting, allow open-ended public comment periods on neighborhood board agendas and give neighborhood boards the right to vote on new agenda items if they affect health and safety.
“We haven’t progressed enough. I have not found that agencies are any more responsive to citizens’ right-to-know requests,” Ihara said. “What’s needed is a higher level of agencies’ understanding of citizens’ right to know under the law.”