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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, March 2, 2006

Sunshine measures falling flat

By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Capitol Bureau


Here is a look at the status of some proposed legislation addressing open records and open meetings:

• SB1062 — Requires 48-hour public notice for committee hearings, public hearings on internal House and Senate rules, and majority votes to suspend legislative rules. Status: Held.

• SB1549 — Subjects boards created by government to the state’s open-meetings law. Requires public announcement of action taken in closed session. Status: Pending.

• SB2366, HB2403 — Empowers the state Office of Information Practices to go to court to enforce sunshine law decisions. Status: Pending in Senate. Deferred in House.

• SB2365, HB2402 — Empowers the OIP to go to court if agencies refuse to comply with rulings under the open-records law. Status: Pending in Senate. Deferred in House.

• SB3145 — Broadens open-meetings law by allowing board members, department heads, the governor and other elected officials to meet privately under certain conditions. Status: Pending.

• HB2404 — Allows two or more members of a board, but not enough to make up a quorum, to discuss their individual opinions on issues under certain conditions. Status: Pending.

• SB2657 — Establishes a five-member board of information practices appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. The board would oversee the OIP and would have the power to hire and fire the OIP executive director. Status: Pending.

• SB1551 — Requires the governor to choose the OIP executive director from two nominees selected by the judicial council for a six-year term. Enhances OIP enforcement power. Status: Passed the Senate last session. Pending in House.

• SB2561 — Increases state spending for the OIP. Status: Pending.

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Several measures that would impose more sunshine on state government, including better notice for public hearings before the state House and Senate, have either stalled or died at the Legislature this session.

Other ideas that are apparently in danger include a potential increase in spending for the state Office of Information Practices and granting the office the power to enforce its open-meeting and open-records decisions by going to Circuit Court, which would give the office more teeth.

The sunshine proposals could give the public and the news media more access to government records and could promote more openness in government deliberations, which many see as important to the democratic pro-cess.

Advocates for open government are already disappointed that the Senate has likely killed a proposal that would have formally subjected the Legislature to greater sunshine requirements.

Les Kondo, the director of the Office of Information Practices, said he fears the bills relating to the office will not move as the Legislature prepares for an important deadline to transfer bills between chambers next week.

One bill would strengthen the sunshine law by adding a compliance provision and giving the office the authority to go to Circuit Court if a ruling is ignored. Another would explicitly give the office the right to go to court to enforce the open-records law.

"The underlying reason is to give some effect to the OIP's opinions," said Kondo, who believes agencies must comply with office rulings under the open-records law. "We just wanted to add that tool to the belt, to close the loop."

A bill by state Sen. Les Ihara Jr., D-9th (Kapahulu, Kaimuki, Palolo), would have required 48-hour public notice for committee hearings as well as public hearings on internal legislative rules before they are adopted. The bill would also have required majority votes to suspend legislative rules.

The Legislature already has 48-hour public notice for committee hearings but it is an internal rule, not a law, and is often waived. Some lawmakers believe it would be difficult for the Legislature to always follow the notice requirement given the compressed nature of a 60-day session.

"I would prefer an even longer period," said Jean Aoki, the legislative chair of the League of Women Voters, which favored Ihara's bill. "It's so difficult for those of us who prepare testimony, especially in the very beginning of a session, when we are so busy gathering information."

The Senate Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee voted 4-1 to hold the bill last week, with Ihara in the minority.

Some of the people who provided testimony believe the existing notice requirement sometimes leads to situations in which the public is unaware a bill is being heard before a committee until it is too late.

George Fox, executive director of Citizen Voice, wrote to the committee that it was "of prime importance that the Legislature should be required to abide by all parts of the sunshine law, especially 48-hour public notice of hearings, to ensure reasonable opportunity for public input and testimony on every measure."

Senate Majority Leader Colleen Hanabusa, D-21st (Nanakuli, Makaha), chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee, said making the notice requirement a law, instead of an internal rule, "just doesn't work for us" given the session schedule. She also said lawmakers should be able to meet privately to discuss internal rules before they are adopted.

"I really think the legislators need to get consensus in order for the rules to work," Hanabusa said.

Ihara said he appreciated that Hanabusa held a hearing on his bill but was disappointed it will likely not progress this session.

Another Ihara bill, still pending in the Senate but at risk of failure, would place boards, committees or task forces created by state government under the sunshine law and require public announcement of action taken in closed session. Such panels often voluntarily follow the open-meetings law, but advocates believe the practice raises some concern about public and media access.

Reach Derrick DePledge at ddepledge@honoluluadvertiser.com.