Cheryl Kakazu Park, a graduate of Leilehua High School and the University of Hawaii law school, has kept up her local-girl cred in the nearly two decades that she’s lived elsewhere. That’s a real effort, given that her world travels include stints in Europe, but she’s come back regularly for college sorority fundraisers and other events.
But the new director of the state Office of Information Practices has found that moving back from Nevada — she worked as staff attorney at the state Supreme Court for seven years — is a big shift. Her husband is a rodeo enthusiast, and there’s little of that on Oahu. But they also lived near Lake Tahoe and, yes, Hawaii has water.
"Maybe we’ll get into sailing here," she said. "We’ll go back in June to say hello and goodbye to our friends, because I just snuck out of there."
Park, 56, arrived in Hawaii in the midst of a brouhaha over a recommendation by her predecessor that judgeship nominees by the Judicial Selection Commission be made public after the appointment is made. State administration attorneys oppose that finding; the new OIP chief said the issue is still under review by her office.
It’s promising to be a busy introduction to the job, even before the Legislature next convenes. Next month she hopes to begin a discussion at the Hawaii State Association of Counties conference over reviewing the open-government laws she administers. The advent of the Web is compelling a review of what constitutes a "meeting," what barriers to back-room communication might be too restrictive, she said.
"A lot of these people are like you and me, they’re volunteers on boards and commissions," she said. "Are we actually discouraging public participation by restricting this open discussion, and making it so difficult for them to do their jobs?"
QUESTION: Do you have a guiding principle on what information should be public?
ANSWER: Much of what we do is case-by-case; it really depends on the factual circumstances. There are two basic laws that we administer: the open records and the open meetings laws. But they can come up in all kinds of different factual circumstances. I think the main thing is that if we have the flexibility to balance the competing interests, then we can give the law a reasonable and realistic interpretation that is relevant to the times.
Q: If it seems clear that if a record was meant to be open, then you’d be inclined to make sure the document is public, is that right?
A: Yeah, because the presumption is that documents are open and accessible to the public … unless they fall within certain exceptions to the law. One of the exceptions is if there’s some kind of substantial privacy interest at stake, or if disclosure would frustrate a legitimate government function, or if there’s some kind of litigation privilege, such as attorney-client privilege. … I think you’re got to remember there are personal privacy rights, especially as recognized in the Hawaii State Constitution.
Q: At the global level, what was your reaction to the whole Wikileaks issue?
A: I’m wondering if that wouldn’t have frustrated a government function — diplomacy and state secrets, and everything else. You’re talking not about something that happened 30, 50 years ago, taking it in a historical context; you’re talking about things that are still relevant today. And how embarrassing that was for the U.S., and how it might have affected the U.S. standing in the world community and the trust that it has with its international partners.
Q: Can you explain what you mean by wanting to update the state open-government laws?
A: Technology has changed in the meantime. Now you have all this social media, like Facebook and Twitter, that the governments want to start using. The government agencies are interested in using more of it, but they have to be careful because it could be a sunshine law violation, for example. Because if you can’t do it in person, you can’t do it by Twittering.
Q: You mean in terms of communications between people?
A: Right, right … It restricts people from participating, especially because you’re looking now at these younger kids who are growing up Twittering and Facebooking and getting their information that way, and being able to access it 24/7, really, through online postings and stuff. So maybe it’s time to look at this issue.
Q: So you would discuss this with community groups, and then have amendments to the laws proposed at the Legislature next year?
A: Yeah, that’s what I’m thinking. I did raise a trial balloon with Common Cause and Americans for Democratic Action, to see whether there was any interest. And there was a considerable discussion about this. So I think if we can find broad support from both the government agencies as well as the public interest groups, then this might be something that would be very timely and relevant to raise with the Legislature. … I’d rather be part of the solution.
Q: How do you see the openness of public information informing decision-making in general?
A: When you have open and transparent government, then people have trust in their government and maybe a greater willingness to participate.
Q: How do you view the issue of the independence of this office? Do you feel there’s a need to insulate yourself somehow from the administration?
A: You know, I consider the administration’s perspective as well, but I think I have a real unique role within the administration. Because although I’m appointed by the governor, I don’t go to his Cabinet meetings. And I’m really answerable to the public, because OIP was created to protect the public’s interest in open government. At the same time, I work closely with all the state and county agencies, boards and commissions, and train and advise them on how to comply with the law … in that respect we really try to resolve conflicts, maybe even before they happen, and try to determine whether or not the agencies are applying the law properly, to keep them out of court and that expensive and time-consuming process. … We essentially act as a mediator between the public and the government agencies.
Q: What kind of open-government cases are you dealing with now?
A: We have a huge backlog of almost 80 cases, because we’ve been shortstaffed since 2009. I only have 2-and-a-half staff attorneys right now, but thankfully the Legislature has recognized our challenges and they came through with funding for us, and I expect to hire another staff attorney very soon who will help with that.
Q: These 80 cases: Are they primarily complaints, or requests for information …
A: … that were denied, or questions about whether the meeting was properly noticed, closed off, or whatever. … And actually, last year, in fiscal year 2010, we had 854 total requests, but 719 were telephone requests, and 71 percent of them came from government boards and agencies seeking advice on how to comply with the law. The other 29 percent were telephone requests from the public, mostly private individuals … Most of our requests are those telephone requests that we can handle almost immediately … but we still have others that require a lot more resources, because they want us to do investigation, or we might have to write up a memo or letter, or maybe even an opinion, which can take a lot of time.
Q: What aspect of your previous job prepared you for this one?
A: I dealt with all different kinds of laws, civil cases, from real estate to water to attorney discipline to administrative procedures, contracts, different topics, different areas of law. Here I only have two laws that I have to be concerned with, primarily. So it’s actually easier. You can get more in-depth with just these two laws, but there are so many different aspects to it.
Q: How would you describe the essence of the Sunshine Law?
A: I guess there was this old perception that all these important decisions were being made behind these back doors, in smoke-filled rooms. So the Sunshine Law was meant to open up the process, and allow the public to participate in the decision-making and see how it’s arrived at. And yet at the same time, I think maybe it didn’t take into account some of the new technologies we have today, and really discounted the value of interpersonal relationships. That’s one of the things I hope we can reset. We can reset the button so that we can have a more civil discourse amongst the various parties, and not attack each other with suspicion and stress constantly.
Q: Do you have any sense how Hawaii’s open-government laws compare to those in other states?
A: Not at this time. I’m too new. But don’t worry; I’ll get to it! (Laughs.) This is only my first month, OK?