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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 5, 2006

Sunshine Law board won't solve problem

Leaders of Hawai'i's four county councils, frustrated with what they say is an overly restrictive application of the state's so-called Sunshine Law, have come up with what they believe may be a cure for their problems.

But that cure, to put a citizen board in charge of the Office of Information Practices, is unnecessary and won't effectively address their key concerns.

If there are problems, and some of their complaints are legitimate, then the fix is to revise the law.

County leaders are understandably reluctant to propose changes in the Sunshine Law for fear they will be seen as being opposed to openness in government. That would be unfair.

Because their officials are directly governed by the Sunshine Law, the counties have every right to seek changes where the law interferes with the orderly process of government business.

One example: The law severely limits contacts between county legislators other than in formally posted and public meetings, in an effort to stop backroom deal-making. Such safeguards are essential.

But the law has been interpreted so strictly that, in theory, if one council member talks to another about a certain subject, then no further contact or discussion is allowed with any other council member other than in formal council meetings.

Another example: The same restriction on unofficial contacts means that no more than two council members can attend outside meetings, such as a town hall briefing on a transit project or a site visit to a landfill.

That's absurd. We want our elected leaders to be well informed on issues that come before them; certainly site visits can help accomplish that. And transparency is key to fostering trust in government.

If the law indeed forces such draconian rulings, then it should be changed. There must be a measure of common sense here. Creating a citizen oversight commission won't solve the problem.

State legislators should make the necessary fixes to the Sunshine Law, while ensuring that the public right to know is protected.

At the same time, lawmakers should do what's right: Give up their exemption and apply the law to themselves.

Correction: O'ahu's advisory Neighborhood Boards are covered by the state's Sunshine Law but the Legislature exempted itself. A previous version of this editorial did not make that clear.