In response to the first signs of COVID-19 community spread in Hawaii, Gov. David Ige issued an emergency proclamation in mid-March. In addition to sensible provisions, such as waiving a one-week waiting period for people to apply for unemployment benefits, it included a puzzling suspension of a state public access law.
Weighing in with wrongheaded follow-up guidance, the state Office of Information Practices, which is tasked with interpreting matters of public access, made it clear that the open meetings law, known as the Sunshine Law, may be tossed out the window during this period of emergency.
The appalling upshot is that government bodies and agencies are now free to push forward with policy-making decisions while keeping the public in the dark, as they are not required to provide even a bare minimum of access to public meetings.
The emergency proclamation advises that administrative hearings and meetings can be conducted through remote technology and telecommunication. But, Ige said, in defense of the suspension, some Sunshine Law participatory provisions are “just not workable” due to social distancing restrictions. Really? Is Hawaii so tech-impaired that even telephone connection at a meeting site is not workable?
Social distancing will be the norm for the foreseeable future. So rather than allowing for the possibility of secret meetings, at all levels of government, there instead should be a push to leverage technology to make governance more inclusive — and more accountable. Transparency tied to the public access law is key to real-deal democratic governance.
Last week, a spokesman for Attorney General Clare Connors said state attorneys are working on language that would restore at least some portions of the open meetings law. Also, an attorney for Oahu Publications Inc., publisher of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, sent a letter to Connors demanding the state reverse its across-the-board suspension.
The letter is necessary, in part, because a much-needed Sunshine Law reset is now essentially seven weeks overdue. The Attorney General’s Office — tasked with upholding the law — should move swiftly to effectively address the emergency proclamation’s overreach.
A coalition of open-government advocates led by Common Cause Hawaii has proposed a reasonable strategy for maintaining the intent of the law as the state continues to grapple with coronavirus outbreak concerns. For starters, it asserts that just as citizens are deferring nonessential travel and activity, so should government defer noncritical policy-making decisions until “full and meaningful public involvement can be guaranteed.”
And in cases where postponement is not realistic, the coalition calls for three requirements: public notification of meetings, including information on how citizens can participate remotely; use of widely available technologies for real-time public testimony and engagement; and preservation of a viewable record of proceedings — promptly made available online.
In the absence of such a minimum, there will likely be more blackouts, such as last week’s Honolulu Police Commission meeting. The regularly scheduled public meeting was held behind closed doors without opportunity for the public to participate in or even observe proceedings.
It’s encouraging that the commission now intends to open up a meeting set for this week with a live broadcast from a nearby monitor station. In recent weeks, various other government meetings have managed to successfully include the public in proceedings in ways other than in-person participation.
Despite COVID-19’s restrictions, it’s important for the public-access law to be respected. Government decisions involving public health and safety serve as reason for more, not less, transparency.