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Sewer pact negotiations need more transparency

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A lot of what government does goes on without most of the public knowing, or even caring. But the city’s acceptance of a massive settlement over the way its sewage system affects environmental and human health comes with a financial consequence that affects each and every taxpayer on Oahu. The public should know more than it does.

Among the terms of the settlement: upgrading Honouliuli and Sand Island plants to secondary levels of sewage treatment. The price tag: about $1.2 billion, part of an estimated $3.5 billion total for projects that will improve the collection system as well. This will be financed through increases in sewage fees spread over the 10 years it will take to finish. Elected officials say fees should rise 2 to 4 percent every year.

City Council members unanimously endorsed a draft consent decree, representing an accord among the Environmental Protection Agency, the state Health Department and various environmental and nonprofit intervenors in an open meeting July 14. But the public—officially invited to comment—had no access to the draft until later, after it was approved.

From an open-government standpoint this seems wrong, but it’s not illegal. It’s just part of the bizarre dance that happens when the executive and legislative branches of government at various levels, each with its own way of handling public information, intersect with the courts. Legal negotiations tend to be kept closed because once confidentiality is waived, information shared publicly can be used against one or more of the parties if the negotiations break down.


Click here to download the proposed consent decree on upgrades to the city’s sewage system.

At this point the city considers the draft agreement public, so it’s time for that abundance of caution to be relaxed. If city officials are serious about their commitment to openness, they should do a better job of releasing the document, posting it online now rather than waiting for the feds to flash the green light.

Officials and lawyers at the EPA and the U.S. Justice Department are still reviewing the draft, which is likely to take another month or so before it’s submitted to federal court. At that point, the public will be invited to comment, before the decree gets the final thumbs-up from the judge.

In the interest of public involvement, however, the Star-Advertiser is posting the draft document online, with the caveat that further changes upon federal review are possible, though unlikely. Releasing the document now, rather than at some indefinite time in the future, will provide more time for taxpayers to see what investments in sewage-system improvements are coming, and to understand why they’re necessary.

The city should be an agent of that understanding. It should be reaching out to the public to explain how and why, in the long run, it’s wise to rebuild infrastructure so Honolulu has the capacity to support population growth. It’s also important to explain how the costs will be spread over time. Compared to the rail project, which advanced in a blaze of publicity, this massive project has been approved under a shroud of darkness.

Bringing this six-year legal battle to a conclusion is cause for relief; prolonging the stalemate between the city and the EPA would only have compounded the cost and environmental risk. But now it’s time to bring the public into what needs to be—from this point forward—a transparent process.


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