Council eyes Sunshine change

LIHUE — A Kauai County Councilman says he would like to see state laws changed so more officials on the seven-member board can attend community meetings.

On several occasions, Council Chair Mel Rapozo said he wanted to attend community meetings focusing on important topics like the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and the proposed Hawaii Dairy Farms site in Mahaulepu. The problem, he said, is an interpretation of the state’s open meetings law that does not allow a majority of the board, or in this case, more than two councilmembers, to attend those meetings.

“The perception from the public is that the councilmembers don’t care and they should be at the meeting, but I think that’s one of the flaws in the Sunshine Law,” Rapozo said. “I don’t think the intent was to deprive the councilmembers from being at a community meeting because social events are excluded, so if it’s a party, then it’s not a problem.”

It’s an ongoing issue that, Rapozo said, prompted him to draft a resolution asking the state Legislature to modify that section within the state’s open meetings law. That proposal will be taken up during the Council Council’s meeting on Wednesday.

“This is just to clarify or make it clear that, if it is a community meeting, the councilmembers can, in fact, attend,” Rapozo said.

The state’s open meetings law, or Sunshine Law, has been on the books since 1975 and governs how state or county boards can conduct their business. It also includes restrictions and requirements on how meetings may be conducted and what constitutes an open meeting.

When formal invitations to community events are given to councilmembers, County Council staff oftentimes determine who is attending so that the Sunshine Law aren’t violated, Councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura said.

It becomes difficult, she said, in cases when community organizations informally ask individual councilmembers to attend a meeting, since most of them won’t know who is attending until they show up.

“It’s ridiculous and I’m really glad Mel’s introducing it,” she said.

Not everyone, however, agrees those laws should be changed.

“The Media Council Hawaii has generally opposed attempts by county councils to weaken Sunshine Law provisions,” Media Council Hawaii President Chris Conybeare wrote in an email.

Doug Meller, legislative co-chair for the League of Women Voters of Hawaii, said the organization “will continue to oppose county council exemption from the Sunshines Law.”

He pointed out that state lawmakers attempted to modify the Sunshine Law in a similar way during the last legislative session. But some of the changes that were approved by lawmakers included the ability of county councils to convene a limited meeting that is open to the public while attending a board or community meeting, if certain restrictions are met.

Easing some of the restrictions by allowing an unrestricted number of councilmembers to attend and speak at community, educational, or informal meetings may open the door to potential abuses, Meller said.

“In our view, meetings or presentations held by private special interests do more than ‘inform’ the community about proposed projects — they are intended to influence county council decisions,” Meller wrote in a March 11 letter to state lawmakers when changes to the Sunshine Law were being considered. “Regardless of whether county councilmembers are elected from districts or are elected at large, there is no compelling justification to create a loophole in Hawaii’s Sunshine Law.”

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