Editorial | Our View Editorial: Bills would defy Sunshine Law Feb. 17, 2021 Mahalo for supporting Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Enjoy this free story! Denying reasonable access to public records at any time negates the law’s role — opening up government processes to scrutiny and participation, which stands as the only viable method of protecting the public’s interest. Read more Mahalo for reading the Honolulu Star-Advertiser! You're reading a premium story. Read the full story with our Print & Digital Subscription. Subscribe Now Read this story for free: Watch an ad or complete a survey Log In Already a subscriber? Log in now to continue reading this story. Activate Digital Account Print subscriber but without online access? Activate your Digital Account now. Shamefully, bills introduced at the state Capitol would allow county councils to employ more secrecy and less public engagement — by way of exemptions from the transparency-focused state law that protects “the people’s right to know.” While supporters allude to the proposed exemptions as a means to more efficiency in conducting government business, they seem to have lost sight of basic democratic ground rules — such as, with rare exception, the public’s business should be conducted in full public view. Yes, the public process can be slower and more cumbersome than that in the private sector. But that’s by necessary design. Public notification and feedback on community issues are vital to sustaining accountability and safeguarding against potential abuse of public- office responsibilities. It’s worrisome — and the general public should be incensed — that elected members of the Legislature, who must now deal with enormous economic shortfalls tied to the pandemic and other statewide priorities, would even consider introducing transparency-eroding measures such as Senate Bill 720 and House Bill 481. Under the state’s Sunshine Law, which governs open meetings, a county council can meet behind closed doors to discuss only a short list of items, which ranges from some personnel decisions to legal consultation in regard to panel duties. Under SB 720, however, added to the list would be an option for a meeting recess period during which members could “conduct discussion off the record” on any subject. The potentially shady upshot — pointed out in state Office of Information Practices (OIP) testimony — could mean council members conducting “real discussions and negotiations privately,” and using public meetings merely for perfunctory acceptance of testimony and calling of the vote. Clearly, that’s unacceptable. The OIP warned that the bill “runs directly counter to the Sunshine Law’s directive that “discussions, deliberations, decisions and action of governmental agencies” related to public policy “shall be conducted as openly as possible.” While SB 720 was shelved last week — in part, due to alarms rightly sounded by advocacy groups, the news media and others — still advancing is HB 481, which would allow county councils to attend and take part in any “informational meeting or presentation” in their communities or elsewhere via exemption from current Sunshine Law requirements. Since 2014, the law has allowed all council members to meet as a “guest of a board or community group holding its own meeting,” provided that the council gives advance public notice; that the public can attend the meeting without paying an admission fee or traveling out-of-state; and that council minutes are prepared. HB 481 seeks to lift these reasonable constraints, which could wrongly leave the public in the dark. Both measures serve as red-flag threats to transparency, partly because they could quickly hinder citizens, journalists and other watchdogs tracking the public’s business. Deserving of the Legislature’s support, though, is a third proposal, SB 134, which would prohibit the governor or a mayor from suspending requests for public records or vital statistics during a declared state emergency. Suspension of the Uniform Information Practices Act (UIPA), which makes government records open and available to the public, is unnecessary, actually, because rules already allow for time delays and flexibility in regard to requests. But in a misguided move, Gov. David Ige put the UIPA on ice in mid-March, vaguely asserting that the action was due to conditions created by the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s partially thawed aspects since then, but has continued restrictions against fuller access. Denying reasonable access to public records at any time negates the law’s role — opening up government processes to scrutiny and participation, which stands as the only viable method of protecting the public’s interest. Previous Story Letters: Ed Case pretending on ‘bipartisanship’; Mayor should lead by example, wear a mask; TMT offers significant scientific, financial value Next Story Column: Do blood lines, genealogy, shared values define Pacific Islanders?