HILO — Behind-the-scenes budget meetings could run afoul of the state Sunshine Law, County Council members learned Tuesday.
The council Finance Committee was scheduled to hear a report from a four-member ad hoc committee that has been digging deeply into county finances in preparation for approving a 2019-20 budget in the coming weeks.
Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz, the chairwoman of the committee, proposed to break the process down into three phases, and she was prepared to deliver a report and recommendations on the first phase Tuesday.
The entire Finance Committee last week held public department-by-department program and budget briefings, where many department heads were taken to task for plans members thought didn’t focus enough on outcomes.
“I think you know it’s very clear we need to home in on the process of how the county forms its budget,” Kierkiewicz said. “The intention of this ad hoc (committee) was to really look at ways we could really affect this current budget and I think we’ve articulated this quite clearly.”
But an April 3 letter from the state Office of Information Practices at Corporation Counsel Joe Kamelamela’s request for an opinion put a damper on the plans.
A so-called “permitted interaction group” made up of less than a voting majority is allowed to meet out of public view to formulate recommendations, under the Sunshine Law. But the law allows the group to simply assemble, submit one report and then disband, OIP staff attorney Jennifer Brooks said in the three-page letter.
If the council proceeds with its plans, the ad hoc committee’s members would take part in at least eight substantive discussions of the subject matter the committee is investigating, including discussion and voting on the budget, before the committee dissolved, Brooks said.
“This seems likely to present multiple Sunshine Law violations,” Brooks said in the letter.
Brooks outlined two options the council could pursue. First, it could refrain from hearing reports or discussing matters the committee is investigating until it completed its work in October.
“That would seem to present serious practical concerns as it would mean the council could not discuss the budget during a period in which it needed to discuss and pass out the budget,” she said.
The other option would be for the subcommittee to hold open meetings.
“I would strongly recommend that the Finance Committee instead form the Ad Hoc Committee as a temporary subcommittee holding open meetings, hearing public testimony, keeping minutes and otherwise following the Sunshine Law’s open meeting requirements for committees of a Sunshine Law board,” Brooks said.
But several council members wanted clarification of the opinion and asked the matter be postponed until the Finance Committee’s May 7 meeting, which comes after Mayor Harry Kim’s May 3 release of his updated budget proposal.
“We are seeking a way to best discuss and come up with a solution for our budget,” said Kohala Councilman Tim Richards, who is on the ad hoc committee. “I support a postponement while we sort this out.”
The first phase that was to be discussed Tuesday was to review county programs and services, examine vacant and desired county positions, review department supplemental requests and conduct an analytical review of annual capital improvements program, according to Kierkiewicz’s proposal.
Future phases would review county’s debt policy and future bond issuances, review assets and liabilities, consider cost-saving measures, identify revenue generation beyond tax increases, review methodology and timeframe of budget process, review existing plans, strategies and policies, review incentives and public-private partnerships to accelerate strategic investments and review financial procedures in the county charter.
“The conversation still needs to be had,” Kierkiewicz said, “about changing the trajectory and the way we want to craft (the budget). I don’t think we should be deterred at all in trying to change things going forward.”
Council Chairman Aaron Chung praised the committee’s hard work.
“This is going to be a work in progress,” Chung said.