In times of emergency, the Constitution is not suspended. In fact, it is needed even more for transparency and accountability.
While we commend our elected leaders for recognizing the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic and taking action to protect the health, safety and well-being of Hawaii’s people, it is disappointing that Gov. David Ige suspended our state’s open-meetings and open-records laws in his March 16 Supplemental Emergency Declaration.
Even though the Legislature is temporarily recessed and the entire state is under a stay-at-home order, our government continues to operate — as it should. But as it continues to function, democracy demands that the public be able to participate in its proceedings. Transparency and support of the public’s right to know are more, not less, critical during emergency situations.
Therefore, we respectfully ask that all legislative committee meetings — including at the county level and of executive department public bodies (e.g., commissions, boards, committees and task forces) — continue to be publicly held by remote access through audio and video means.
With that in mind, we recommend the following guidelines to ensure public participation:
>> Postpone routine, nonpriority government action until Hawaii’s state of emergency has ended.
>> Should a public body continue to meet, it should provide adequate notice of the meeting and ensure that the public can participate via videoconference, telephone and submission of written testimony, as appropriate.
>> In the event audio or video coverage of a proceeding or meeting is interrupted, the presiding official should suspend the discussion until the audio or video is restored. When operating remote meetings by video conference, all participating members of the public body should be clearly visible and audible to the public at all times. The intent is to ensure that the connection and platform are appropriate and stable to make public officials clearly audible and visible by all participants.
>> At the start of the meeting, the presiding official should announce the names of any members of the public body participating remotely. During a meeting for which only audio is being provided, anyone speaking should state their name prior to making their remarks.
>> All votes should be conducted by roll call so that those following by video or audio are aware of how each member of the public body voted.
>> Any documents presented to the public body at the public meeting should, if possible, be put on the website of the public body prior to the start of the public meeting.
>> At the beginning of any executive session being held remotely, all members of the public body should affirm that no other person is present in the room with them or can hear them.
>> The public body should record all meetings and make the recording available on a public website on a timely basis.
We recommend these measures because only by guaranteeing public participation in government can we ensure the preservation of our democratic values. It is especially important now that we can trust what our government is doing on our behalf. Requiring that it act in a transparent manner is critical to maintaining that trust.
Without a doubt, these are extraordinary times we are living in. However, we must not sacrifice our democratic values when faced with adversity. We must be extra vigilant to ensure that our government is acting in the public interest — and in a way that is fully transparent and democratic.
It is time to restore Hawaii’s sunshine and public records laws.
Sandy Ma is executive director of Common Cause Hawaii, Brian Black is executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, and Keli‘i Akina is president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.