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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Sunshine law may not go to task force

By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer

The state House Judiciary Committee, responding to criticism from activists and the news media, has backed away from having a task force study the state's open-meetings law.

Instead, state Rep. Sylvia Luke, D-26th (Punchbowl, Pacific Heights, Nu'uanu Valley), chairwoman of the committee, said yesterday she would support a series of public meetings on open government being planned with the University of Hawai'i.

The meetings would be open to public officials, activists and journalists who would discuss the sunshine law and make recommendations to the state Legislature before next session.

Luke said she agreed with activists that the meetings would be better than a task force that would have been made up of the director of the state Office of Information Practices and representatives of the state, the counties, the state school board and the university's Board of Regents.

"I do agree that it was very skewed," Luke said.

Luke said she would keep the bill creating the task force alive in case House lawmakers need a vehicle for other issues related to the sunshine law or want to hear the bill's original content, which would bar lobbyists from making political contributions to lawmakers during the session.

Activists said a task force made up of public officials would have likely undermined the sunshine law.

"This is probably a prescription for failure," said Jean Aoki of the League of Women Voters of Hawai'i. "The probability is high that the product will be unacceptable to the public. What we possibly may end up with would be a 'moonshine law' or a 'moonlight law' depending on the provisions of the resulting product rather than a sunshine law."

Stirling Morita, the president of the Hawai'i chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, testified yesterday that the bill appeared to be retribution against the Office of Information Practices for interpreting the law fairly.

"We can't see a need for this bill, and no one has shown a need for this bill," Morita said.

But Honolulu City Council Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz, in written testimony to the committee, said OIP opinions have caused confusion and that some county lawmakers want to clarify and possibly revise the law. Late last year, the Hawai'i State Association of Counties suggested that counties ask the Legislature for an exemption from the sunshine law, but county councils did not support the idea after it was criticized by activists.

A task force, Dela Cruz wrote, would have reviewed whether the law has been "able to balance its purpose of keeping government transparent and accessible to the public, while allowing government to work efficiently and allowing lawmakers to make well informed decisions."

State Sen. Les Ihara, Jr., D-9th (Kapahulu, Kaimuki, Palolo), and other lawmakers have sponsored resolutions urging the meetings on open government with the UH College of Social Sciences Public Policy Center.

The meetings would likely be held over the summer and fall and would be designed as neutral forums to examine the sunshine law.

Susan Chandler, the interim director of the center, has said the meetings would be inclusive. "This is an idea to reach out to virtually anybody who is interested," she said.

Reach Derrick DePledge at ddepledge@honoluluadvertiser.com.