Embattled tourism agency considers transparency measures
HTA Board Chairman Rick Fried, a prominent Honolulu attorney, said the agency may adopt a new policy that would require board approval for expenditures over $250,000.
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The Hawai‘i Tourism Authority is considering measures to increase public transparency in the wake of criticism from the visitor industry and state lawmakers that it isn’t forthcoming about how it spends tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to market the islands.
HTA Board Chairman Rick Fried, a prominent Honolulu attorney, said the agency may adopt a new policy that would require board approval for expenditures over $250,000. Fried said the agency also could establish a marketing advisory committee to provide more oversight of staff marketing decisions.
“There are some things that we can do better and have done better as far as transparency,” Fried said at Thursday’s monthly board meeting.
The proposed changes address recent complaints from visitor industry stakeholders and lawmakers, who said the HTA’s disclosure policies and reliance on lengthy executive sessions make it impossible to evaluate public spending. The agency gets $82 million in transient accommodation taxes for marketing and operations, and another $26.5 million for the Hawai‘i Convention Center.
The HTA came under scrutiny earlier this month when it told members of the Senate Ways and Means Committee that it would not provide them with a full budget because some items were “competitively sensitive.” During that hearing, state Sen. Glenn Wakai (D, Kalihi-Salt Lake), chairman of the Senate’s Economic Development, Tourism, and Technology Committee, said he had been waiting more than five weeks for the HTA to fulfill his open records request for the budget. After getting blasted by Wakai and other senators, the agency agreed to provide certain lawmakers with budget information if they promised to withhold it from the public.
Fried offered a similar deal to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser Thursday in response to a request for information on HTA spending on sporting events.
“I’ve been authorized by the board to offer to provide you with the prices of the eight remaining sporting events provided that you sign a (non-disclosure agreement)” Fried said. “The offer is so you know that there’s no funny business going on.”
The newspaper declined the offer. The Star-Advertiser wants the HTA to release the prices for individual sporting events for 2016 and 2017. On Jan. 12, the HTA provided prices for some sporting contracts but withheld costs for eight. The HTA sent the newspaper a redacted Los Angeles Clippers contract Friday that was scrubbed of all price information.
The eight events in question are the PGA Tour, Ironman World Championship, LPGA, Team Unlimited Xterra/Xduro, Kemper Sports Maui Invitational, soccer-related events, rugby-related events and tennis-related events.
The visitor industry and lawmakers also have put pressure on the HTA to conduct more of its meetings in public.
Closed-door executive sessions have lengthened substantially since HTA President and CEO George Szigeti assumed leadership of the agency in May 2015.
Wakai introduced a bill Monday that would end a 2010 law allowing the HTA to discuss “competitively sensitive” information behind closed doors. Wakai’s bill also mandates that the HTA provide unredacted budgets to the leaders of the legislative tourism and finance committees.
“From a government perspective, we need to make it very clear that they need to be sharing information and be more transparent,” he said.
Fried agreed during Thursday’s meeting that the agency was “slow off the ball in turning things over completely.”
The board has re-evaluated its stance on withholding information from lawmakers, but Fried said it uniformly agrees that it must continue withholding price information for eight sporting events, which are deemed easily transferable.
The HTA’s decision meets exemptions in the state’s open-records and sunshine laws, Fried said.
“If it gets pursued and (the state Office of Information Practices) tells us to turn them over, we will,” he said. “But obviously we run a risk of losing these events.”
Wakai said he doesn’t buy the HTA’s argument that disclosure would harm “competitive advantage.”
“The public has a right to know what’s been spent. Once the deal is inked, it should be disclosed,” he said. “The Pro Bowl had a long run, and we all knew what they paid for it.”