They say you can’t fight city hall. In these uncertain times, you can hardly even go there.
Starting with next week’s meetings, the Hawaii County Council will limit public participation in order to create social distancing to help curtail the spread of coronavirus. Live-streaming of the meetings on the County Council website and broadcasting afterward on Na Leo TV, however, will continue.
“We have to flatten the curve. We have to practice social distancing,” Council Chairman Aaron Chung said. “We’re going to try to see how this works because we want to be able to keep government working. We ask for the public’s patience as we’re looking out for their best interest.”
Under the new procedure, made allowable under the state Sunshine Law by a supplementary emergency proclamation Gov. David Ige signed Monday, council members will be split between the West Hawaii Civic Center and the county building in Hilo, Chung said. Both the committee meetings and the council meeting will be held on a single day, instead of the usual two days.
The public will not be allowed in the room. Satellite videoconference sites in Waimea, Kohala, Puna and Naalehu will be closed.
There will be no oral testimony. Instead, written testimony on items on the agenda will be accepted before noon on the business day before the meeting via email (firstname.lastname@example.org), fax (961-8912) or postal mail (County Clerk’s Office, 25 Aupuni Street, Hilo, HI 96720).
“We will happily be accepting testimony,” County Clerk Jon Henricks said.
Henricks said testimony will ultimately be posted in the council’s official record, indexed to the original bill, resolution or communication, available online, as is done now. It won’t happen right away, however.
“They’re part of post-meeting actions that we keep up with as time permits,” he said, “but they will eventually be part of the record.”
Ige’s supplemental proclamation loosens Sunshine Law restrictions “to the extent necessary to enable boards to conduct business in person or through remote technology without holding meetings open to the public.”
“Boards shall consider reasonable measures to allow public participation consistent with social distancing practices, such as providing notice of meetings, allowing submission of written testimony on agendized items, live streaming meetings and posting minutes of meetings online,” the supplemental proclamation reads. “No board deliberation or action shall be invalid, however, if such measures are not taken.”
Jeff Portnoy, a First Amendment attorney who frequently represents the media, including West Hawaii Today, when seeking access to government records and meetings, called the governor’s proclamation “over-broad,” and “kind of like martial law.” He sees the county’s decision as understandable and more reasonable, especially if, as is being discussed between West Hawaii Today and Chung, a media representative is allowed in the room.
“Obviously these are unique times and you have to look at things in a practical light,” Portnoy said. “I completely understand the efforts to minimize exposure to both council members and the public, but a more reasonable approach would be and should be to allow volunteer members of the media to sit in for the media and public.”