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Editorial: Government must be open to scrutiny

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When called on to deal with catastrophic demands for government service, anything less than critical is going to be pushed to the back burner, or just switched off altogether. That is not surprising.

However, the governor’s decision to suspend the state’s Sunshine Law, the requirement that government agencies conduct business in open meetings and with advance notice, as well as the law that makes government records open and available, could have consequences that the beleaguered public, distracted by other woes, has not imagined and must work to avoid.

Gov. David Ige issued the announcement, a supplement to his emergency proclamation about the coronavirus pandemic, shortly after the state House and Senate voted to suspend the current session of the Legislature.

The decision, issued March 17, arose from the recommendation by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that all gatherings consisting of 50 or more people be canceled or postponed over an eight-week period. Of course, since then there have been curbs against even smaller groups, and this week’s launch of a statewide shutdown makes activities that are less than essential harder to conduct.

So, yes, public meetings will no longer be routine, open-door gatherings — and yes, some meetings now will need to be called at unscheduled times. The need for government to move nimbly will overcome the imperative to notify everyone well in advance, so that they might drop in.

But it must not follow that the public should lose all its ability to know what government is doing. The federal experience during the 2008 financial bailout provides some context: Many officials point to a lack of oversight on government programs working to the benefit of financial institutions, and not the taxpayer who funded the rescue package.

Here in Hawaii there are going to be a lot more impromptu meetings, virtual or otherwise, by elected officials and others. Without the Sunshine Law’s protections, they will be free to have conversations about the business they’re supposed to be doing on the public’s behalf — meeting in person, using online conferencing or phone calls.

The state public-records law was also suspended, according to a statement from the Office of the Attorney General, “to give government the maximum flexibility to focus its attention and personnel resources” on imperatives of the crisis rather than on records.

Will the government have time to provide records promptly? Probably not.

But government should be expected to keep records of all meetings, impromptu, online and any other kind. Once the crisis abates, the people should be asking: When was this decision made, and why?

Government must be held accountable to decisions it is making that affect the public welfare, even if the people have less of an opportunity to watch officials at work.

It does appear that some agencies are making an effort to that end. Sandy Ma, executive director of the good-government nonprofit Common Cause Hawaii, noted that the state Ethics Commission has provided a call-in option for anyone wishing to “attend” the meeting, set for Friday, by teleconference. Another example: the state Senate Special Committee on COVID-19 has been livestreaming its hearings on how the state is dealing with the pandemic. That’s encouraging.

However, the governor’s order says only such access provisions may be made “at the sole discretion of the department or agency.” That should not be the case, or at least the waivers from such a requirement should be more targeted to emergency circumstances.

It is right that government be allowed to do its work more quickly in a crisis. But the public still deserves to gain access — and to see whether government is doing its work in the people’s interest.

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