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Bill would restrict access to public documents

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The proposal sailed through the House Committee on Finance Wednesday, 16-0, after a two-minute hearing. Its next stop is the full House for a vote.

A bill in the Hawaii Legislature could limit some people’s rights to file public records requests with public agencies, raising concerns that it could reduce journalists’ and community members’ access to information.

The proposal would allow a state office to declare a person a “vexatious records requester.”

The Office of Information Practices, which handles disputes over records requests, could declare someone “vexatious” if they found that the requester “made requests in bad faith or with the intent to be a nuisance” or “made requests that were duplicative, repetitive, or substantially similar, after the agency responded to the initial request.” It would be up to the state agency that seeks to have someone deemed “vexatious” to prove it.

Under the bill, HB 1518, once a person is deemed “vexatious,” the state could restrict their rights to request records for up to two years. The state has to notify the person before making the designation, and the bill also sets up an appeal process for the record requester.

The proposal, introduced by Rep. Scott Saiki (D, Downtown-Kakaako-McCully), sailed through the House Committee on Finance Wednesday, 16-0, after a two-minute hearing. Its next stop is the full House for a vote.

The Hawaii Health Services Corporation supported the proposal because it has experience with a few people who used the records law to “abuse and harass” public employees, said Chief Operating Officer Anne Lopez in written testimony.

Several state offices including the University of Hawaii wrote in to support the measure, saying there’s a need for balance between the public’s rights and the time spent responding to record requests.

Brian Black of the Civil Beat Center for Law in the Public Interest opposed the bill, saying it “strips citizens of the fundamental right to access public records without adequate due process.” He said “applying the ‘vexatious’ label to frequent requesters to those departments would seem politically motivated to silence the news media and community advocates, not protect agency efficiency.”

Black said the most frequent record requests to the University of Hawaii came from the news media. “It is abhorrent to the principles of informed citizenry in our democracy that any of these frequent requesters would be stripped of their right to access public records,” Black said.

Some departments have had numerous requests from the same individual over and over again, which is different than members of the media requesting records, said Rep. Sylvia Luke, chairwoman of the Finance Committee, after the hearing.

“I don’t think the intent is to stop them,” Luke said. “We need to figure out if there’s a balance.”

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