Council bandies bill to make county attorney opinions public

A bill co-introduced yesterday by Kaua‘i County Council members JoAnn Yukimura and Tim Bynum would require the county attorney to make certain legal opinions public.

The proposed legislation unanimously passed first reading. A public hearing was scheduled for Oct. 22 at the Historic County Building, the week before Bill 2288 is to be heard by the Committee of the Whole.

The proposed legislation nearly mirrors the state law regulating the release of legal opinions by the attorney general.

It calls for the same distinction between two types of opinions. The first are “opinions on questions of law” submitted by public officers on matters connected to their public duties. The second is “advice and counsel” to public officers on matters connected to their public duties.

As the bill stands, the proposed legislation says: “When requested by the mayor, council or its members, department heads or board or commission members, the county attorney shall give opinions upon questions of law submitted. The county attorney shall file a copy of each opinion with the county clerk within three days of the date of its issue. Opinions on file with the county clerk shall be available for public inspection.”

Residents, such as government watchdogs Ken Taylor and Glenn Mickens of Kapa‘a, have fought for more than a year to have these types of legal opinions made public. They pursued the goal through a charter amendment, but it failed to pass in the county Charter Review Commission.

Yukimura said a bill for an ordinance, which allows for greater public input, serves as a better framework for the proposed policy change.

When Kekaha resident Bruce Pleas suggested the council shelve the imperfect bill, Council Chair Jay Furfaro said he wants to see the legislation move forward so a thorough public dialog could ensue. He reiterated that the bill can be amended in committee.

Pleas said he would like to see the legislation’s wording match Hawai‘i Revised Statutes verbatim, except replacing “attorney general” with “county attorney” and making similar substitutions for comparable political offices such as governor and mayor.

The proposed ordinance also says when called upon, the county attorney shall at all times give advice and counsel to the mayor, the council or its members, department heads or board or commission members in all matters connected to their public duties.

Residents have testified at council sessions and board meetings over the past year that their comments on pending legislation were in some cases severely limited by not having access to county attorney opinions on questions of law.

Council looked into the matter, learning that it does not have a policy in place to release such opinions. This ordinance, and a parallel discussion introduced by Furfaro dealing with setting a council rule for the release of legal opinions, is the seven-member legislative body’s response to their concerns.

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