The Honolulu Police Commission on Wednesday will hold its second secret meeting since the Sunshine Law was temporarily waived as part of Gov. David Ige’s emergency proclamation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The sole agenda item for that meeting is Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard’s letter to the Hawaii Supreme Court chief justice — a communication of which other parties were not notified, and that Commissioner Steven Levinson, a former state Supreme Court justice, questions.
He said commissioners were made aware of the letter that objected to the early release of jailed inmates and prisoners due to COVID-19 at the end of the last meeting, and he asked that it be placed on the next meeting’s agenda. Commission Chairwoman Shannon Alivado set the meeting for Wednesday, and written testimony is due today, Levinson said.
The commissioners will be teleconferencing from their homes, but the public is not being allowed to participate or hear the hearing, except by written submission in advance.
The governor’s emergency order says, however, that the boards shall reasonably allow for public participation consistent with social distancing practices, allowing written testimony to be submitted and livestreaming of meetings, as Common Cause Hawaii points out.
“Common Cause has always contended that the public should be able to comment and provide testimony in real time because our testimonies can change based on what is discussed at the meeting because we cannot anticipate in advance what’s discussed,” said Common Cause Hawaii Executive Director Sandy Ma.
“Why bother to have a public meeting?” she asked.
Alivado, who is also Hawaiian Electric’s general relations manager, did not return a phone call and text Monday as to why the meeting was not open to the public.
At least two commissioners — Levinson and Loretta Sheehan — say they would like the public to have access to the meeting, which could be as simple as dialing in and joining the telephone conference call or having access by using Zoom or some other videoconferencing application.
“Why not everybody call in during the meeting and open it up for public testimony?” said Sheehan, former commission chairwoman. “I understand the need to continue government function in a crisis. However, as the crisis goes on, we should be figuring out ways to include the public in our meetings and decisions.”
She said she doesn’t know how the decisions were made.
Levinson said he’s “a little perplexed” as to how the telephone conference call decision was made. The last meeting, on April 15, was also held that way.
“I couldn’t understand what people were saying half the time,” he said. “It’s not even Zoom. We can’t even see each other.”
“Theoretically, it’s possible for the media to participate by calling in,” he said.
Last week the city Salary Commission held a meeting to raise the salaries of all elected and appointed city officials. The meeting by videoconference call among the commissioners virtually left out the public, which could not testify in person, by phone or by videoconference. The previously submitted written testimonies were summarized mostly in a line or two by the chairman.
Ma said the City Council’s Zoning Committee had a lot of public interest and that a lot of testimony was submitted, but it all had to be written.
It was livestreamed, but the public was unable to participate remotely.
“They allowed in-person testimony,” Ma said. “Why are you making people go down?”
She added that the Zoning Committee’s materials were available only at Honolulu Hale. “You were unable to submit meaningful testimony unless you went down” to City Hall, she said.
Ma said she was able to call in and comment by telephone at the State Ethics Commission meeting.
She couldn’t get the computer to work during the Honolulu Ethics Commission meeting, but was able to submit testimony by phone.
“We just want the opportunity to comment,” she said. “There are parts of the state that do not have high-speed broadband access, so phone works.”
Sheehan said some of the decisions made during the pandemic have not been properly justified.
“Personally, I understand the tension between having a lockdown and needing government services to go forward,” she said. “I’m a little bit nervous about the rational basis regarding the Easter weekend curfew. … I wanted the rational basis to be explained better. … You could come up with arguments justifying curfew. I feel that an explanation was lacking.”