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House committee advances Hawaiian Home Lands secrecy bill

By Rob Perez

LAST UPDATED: 7:42 a.m. HST, Feb 6, 2014

A House committee advanced a bill that opponents say would cloak much of the homestead files for the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands in secrecy, but a Senate panel shelved the companion measure.

By a 5-0 vote on Wednesday, the House Ocean, Marine Resources & Hawaiian Affairs panel passed an amended HB 2287, which now goes to the House Judiciary Committee. On the Senate side, the Hawaiian Affairs committee killed SB 2837, citing concerns raised by DHHL homestead lessees and others.

The bill would create a special exemption in Hawaii's open-records law, making government documents related to homestead lessees and applicants confidential if the records include personal data.

That would be a significant deviation from current state law, which generally requires state and county agencies to redact confidential information from a public document -- but the redacted record remains public.

Opponents, including the state Office of Information Practices which administers Hawaii's open-records law, say the proposed measure is so broad that it would provide blanket confidentiality to many DHHL documents, including some currently considered public.

They also say sensitive personal information that DHHL is seeking to protect already is exempt from disclosure, making the legislation unnecessary.

Curtis Crabbe, a DHHL lessee from Molokai, told the Senate committee he opposed the bill.

"There isn't enough sunshine in that department," Crabbe, 57, said in an interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser after the committee shelved the bill. "Right now, what DHHL needs is a lot of sunshine and a lot of truth."

Supporters, including some Native Hawaiian groups, said the measure, introduced at DHHL's request, is needed to protect certain data in homestead lessee and applicant files that shouldn't be accessible to the public.

DHHL Director Jobie Masagatani told the House panel that the measure would provide clarity in determining what is exempt and would help the department advocate for the privacy of its beneficiaries. She said the goal is not to exempt documents already public, such as homestead leases. But for some records, she said, it's not clear whether they are public.

To address concerns raised by OIP, DHHL submitted an amendment that was adopted by the House committee.

But Cheryl Kakazu Park, who heads OIP, wasn't won over. "It's still way too broad," she told the panel.

Park said after the hearing that DHHL has not indicated to her office what specific types of documents need protection from disclosure. A DHHL spokesman said the department would work with the Legislature and OIP to clarify that issue.

Rep. Faye Hanohano, who heads the committee, urged Masagatani and Park to work together to come up with a better version of the bill by the time the Judiciary panel considers it.

If the legislation passes the House, it could face a tougher haul in the Senate.

Sen. Maile Shimabukuro, who heads the Senate Hawaiian Affairs committee, said she's heard from lessees and others who have many questions about the bill.

"There's just a lot of concerns raised," she told the panel.

DHHL oversees a 203,000-acre land trust for its beneficiaries, who must be at least 50 percent Hawaiian. The agency issues 99-year homestead leases for residential, ranching and farming purposes. Homesteaders pay $1 a year.

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