Wednesday, November 25, 2015         


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OIP must remain independent


The appointment of a new state Office of Information Practices director offers Gov. Neil Abercrombie the chance to press the reset button on the issue of openness. So far, the governor has not covered himself in glory with his own information practices.

Cheryl Kakazu Park has been named OIP director and has asserted that Abercrombie has given her "a free hand to apply and administer the law." That is at least a welcome resolution: The information office loses its potency as an agent of transparency if it is covered with thumbprints from the governor or any elected politician.

The trouble is, the administration has stood closer to this agency than it should, intervening in its operations in a way that jeopardizes its position as an independent body. The fact that this intervention coincided with a conflict between the governor and the OIP makes the situation even more suspect.

Here's the sequence of events:

» In January Abercrombie decided against releasing the list of state Supreme Court candidates compiled for him by the Judicial Selection Commission; he ultimately tapped Sabrina McKenna for the job, using the list.

» In early February, then-acting Director Cathy Takase, who had been an OIP staffer since 2004, issued a letter criticizing that decision.

» A few weeks later, Abercrombie appointed Linden Joesting to fill the staff attorney job Takase held before taking over as acting director. This was a departure from normal protocol, in which the office director does the staff hiring.

» Early in March, Takase was notified that she would be replaced, but her old staff job had been filled. Soon after, she signed hiring paperwork for Joesting. On April 1, Takase joined the state's Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs' Cable Television Division as a program specialist.

Abercrombie staffers have acknowledged the "questionable" appearance of all this but said the actions were unrelated. Nonetheless, the fact that the governor himself micromanaged at this level looks bad — meaning, it has the look of a preemptive strike motivated by revenge. And — particularly when the target is the head of the information agency, an office that shouldn't even appear to be hamstrung — the governor's lack of prudence on this issue is troubling.

The Star-Advertiser has formally appealed Abercrombie's judicial-list secrecyto the OIP chief. Park has said she's received no directive to reverse Takase's advisory. The new director certainly will need to be thorough in documenting her decision, whichever way it goes.

The position of this newspaper and other media and good-government organizations is firm. It's important to bring sunshine into the process of selecting judges, as former Gov. Linda Lingle had done, by releasing the candidates' names at least once the decision is made. Abercrombie argues that this will discourage candidates from stepping forward. Even if there's anecdotal evidence that some candidates don't want current employers knowing that they are seeking a judgeship, that simply can't be the overriding concern of the governor.

The proof we now have is the embarrassing situation with Joseph Wildman, who had been nominated to the Maui Circuit Court bench but then withdrew when an issue about federal tax liens against his former law firm came to light. If so little vetting of candidates is done before selections are made, then surely making the names public could only improve the chances that the best person will get the job.

If nothing else, the past few months show the wisdom of bringing another opinion — one that's insulated from political pressures — into the debate of how much the people know about the workings of their own government.

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