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Don’t weaken public access

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"Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases," Louis Brandeis famously wrote in 1913, three years before ascending to the U.S. Supreme Court. "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants."

More than a century later, those words ring truer than ever in an age of byzantine bureaucracy that enables secrecy, against the public interest. And each year, it seems, attempts to increase secrecy need to be thwarted.

In Hawaii, two important open-government laws must remain bedrock-strong: the Uniform Information Practices Act (UIPA), which requires open access to government records; and the Sunshine Law, which requires open public meetings.

A just-ended, four-year battle between the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and the state under former Gov. Neil Abercrombie, over disclosure of judicial nominees, shows the imperative of strong transparency laws. UIPA dictates that government documents be presumed public unless the government demonstrates a compelling reason to withhold them.

In defiance of UIPA and countering disclosure practices of his predecessors, Abercrombie kept those nominees secret. The Star-Advertiser sued and prevailed — disclosure is required and serves a public purpose — but Abercrombie stubbornly took the fight for legal fees up to the state Supreme Court, adding $45,000 to the case. Gov. David Ige has now approved payment.

"The Star-Advertiser was able to see this through to the end, even while the governor (Abercrombie) ordered appeals that delayed the outcome," said Dennis Francis, Star-Advertiser publisher. "But the state’s reaction to our suit is bound to give pause to those who might think about pursuing open records in government on their own."

That chilling truth goes to the very heart of why Hawaii’s open records and open meetings laws must be protected in their strength, not weakened. With clarity of law — not ambiguity — in mind, the governor is urged to veto these legislative bills that would impede government transparency:

» House Bill 287 (HD1, SD1, CD1) would keep more public records from disclosure, on privacy grounds; it was supported by the Honolulu Police Department and the Judiciary, but strongly and rightly opposed by a range of good-government advocates. Broadening the exception from public disclosure under UIPA, has the effect of incrementally closing the window of public accountability.

» Senate Bill 1208 (SD1, HD1) would allow the board of the $13.9 billion Employees Retirement System to close more meetings to the public. Millions of taxpayer dollars are paid each year into the public-workers’ ERS — Hawaii’s largest public pension fund — so granting additional exemptions to the open-meetings law is unsettling. While the final form of this bill carves out a smaller Sunshine Law loophole than initially proposed, to allow the publicly funded ERS to close a meeting when it has long operated without such a carveout is dubious.

» Senate Bill 419 (SD 2, HD 1, CD 1) would create a limited exception from the Sunshine Law for neighborhood board members, giving them much more freedom than any other boards’ members to attend and interact at informational meetings. In a significant exception to the Sunshine Law — and that’s what makes this alarming — this bill would allow more than a quorum of neighborhood board members to attend public meetings or presentations (for example, a developer’s presentation) that do not charge a fee or require registration, and are not organized for or directed toward board members. Such exemptional leeway for members to gather outside of their official, publicized neighborhood board meeting would be a bad precedent.

Other measures that would have enhanced government accountability and openness failed this year; they remain alive for consideration next session, where it’s hoped they will succeed. Tops among them: Increased transparency for public agency meetings, specifically requiring boards to report any final action taken during a closed executive session; and reinstatement of Hawaii’s once-lauded media shield law, which dismayingly, was allowed to sunset in 2013.

But those are battles for another year.

The public’s best defense is to keep vigilant, and to keep Hawaii’s open-government laws intact.

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