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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, June 20, 2003

Sunshine law must have limits

By Jim Shon

Jim Shon is a former state legislator.

In the '70s and '80s, I lobbied for passage of the sunshine law. In the 1978 Constitutional Convention, I pushed for more openness in our legislative process. For 12 years I observed the meaning of openness from the front lines as a legislator.

Based on this experience, the current mania to apply the sunshine law to each and every conversation among officials is not only misplaced, it actually can work against more thoughtful deliberations and better laws. A few observations:

• We elect or appoint people to represent us because we cannot spend the time to explore all the issues and participate in all decisions. If we adopt the notion that this form of democracy should be inherently distrusted, we should seek other ways of making community decisions.

• Private and candid conversations, discussions and analysis among board members and elected officials are the basis of careful and well-developed decisions. It is ridiculous when two members of the Board of Regents cannot ride in a car together, let alone exchange information and views on the business of the University of Hawai'i. It is inconceivable that any group that holds the public trust could perform its duties with essentially a court order to avoid all contacts except when in front of the cameras.

• When the only conversations about public business are in front of the cameras, the temptation to use each and every exchange as a PR opportunity or to score points against a rival are increased.

• When e-mail and meetings are banned, some contacts will be carried out in deep secrecy, creating a mentality of deception that is unnecessary and personally corrupting.

• It is ridiculous to suggest that everyone on the planet can communicate through e-mail except those who make decisions on our behalf.

• Lobbyists, community leaders, all sorts of advocates and influence peddlers are free to meet privately and communicate discretely with elected or appointed officials. The only people who are barred from these contacts are members of the same council or commission.

Formal decision-making and voting should always be made in public, but there should be few prohibitions against members of commissions or the county councils from having private conversations or communications among themselves regarding public business. You cannot learn all you need to learn or develop mutual understandings without interaction.