Council committee seeks sunshine

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HILO — The Hawaii County Council is poised to become the third in the state to send a resolution to the Legislature, asking that body to comply with the state Sunshine Laws governing open meetings.

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HILO — The Hawaii County Council is poised to become the third in the state to send a resolution to the Legislature, asking that body to comply with the state Sunshine Laws governing open meetings.

The Committee on Governmental Relations and Economic Development voted 9-0 Tuesday to forward Resolution 295 to the council for a final vote. The Maui and Kauai councils voted unanimously in early September for similar resolutions.

Council Chairwoman Valerie Poindexter sponsored the nonbinding resolution, citing her recent experience addressing legislative committees during a special session about her concerns having the state take on responsibility for Honolulu’s troubled $9 billion rail project.

Poindexter, along with Maui Council Chairman Mike White and Kauai Council Chairman Mel Rapoza, faced tough questioning during a House committee hearing. They left the hearing frustrated that, while the public testimony part of the hearing was open to the public, the committee then went behind closed doors to debate and vote on the bill. Members then returned to the public meeting and put their votes on the record, without debate.

“The public, I’ve always believed, has a right to hear how decisions are made,” Poindexter said.

Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha, the council’s liaison to the Hawaii State Association of Counties, said Kauai may add the Sunshine Law resolution to the group’s 2018 legislative package.

“I agree that what we saw this past special session … what we saw was not in the public’s interest,” Kanuha said. “There’s a lot of issues we do have with the state Legislature.”

Council members generally agreed more transparency is important.

“The lack of transparency is dis-empowering to voters,” said Puna Councilwoman Jen Ruggles. “We have a hard enough time getting the people to care.”

But most seemed skeptical that the resolutions will do any good.

“With all due respect, it happens with great arrogance,” Puna Councilwoman Eileen O’Hara said of her experience witnessing closed-door deals during a stint as a legislative staffer.

Hilo Councilman Aaron Chung, who raised a number of concerns before joining the majority to vote yes, said he worried about ramifications. The Legislature has the power, he said.

“If we’re going to piss them off, it’s just going to make things more difficult for us in the long run,” Chung said.

Chung said he’s had issues with complying with the Sunshine Law while doing council business. County councils are required by the state Sunshine Law to hold their deliberations and votes in a publicly noticed meeting, unless they go into executive session for specific limited purposes allowed by law, such as personnel matters and litigation.

“At times it cripples us .. it cripples our ability to do the people’s work,” Chung said, adding that transparency needs to be balanced with effectiveness.

A handful of testifiers all favored the resolution.

“If we want to have an engaged public we need an informed public,” said Papaikou resident Heather Kimball.

Former County Councilwoman Brenda Ford, of Kona, agreed.

“Transparency in government is vital to democracy,” Ford said.

Cory Harden cited the rail bailout bill and a “gut and replace” bill of a few years ago as examples of bills allowing little to no public input.

“Shenanigans like this are standard practice,” Harden said. “They are not democracy.”

Holding a state legislative body to public meeting laws is more common than not in the United States.

Some 32 states require their state legislatures to follow the Sunshine Law, compared to 15 that do not and three that have laws on the books that are not enforced, according to the 2011 Open Government Guide by the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Neither Hawaii Senate President Ronald Kouchi nor House Speaker Scott Saiki returned repeated calls for comment by press time Tuesday.

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Poindexter’s resolution notes that the state Legislature, in adopting Chapter 92, the Sunshine Law, described the significance of holding meetings open to the public as, “Opening up the governmental processes to public scrutiny and participation is the only viable and reasonable method of protecting the public’s interest.”

Yet, “despite the touted importance of holding meetings open to the public for all state and county boards, the Hawaii State Legislature is exempted from the applicability of the Sunshine Law,” the resolution states.

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