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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 22, 2010

HTA secrecy: Shhh, don’t tell the Mexicans (or taxpayers)

Right now, Hawaii and Mexico are in a bruising battle to capture the hearts and dollars of affluent Californians who still plan to take a tropical vacation this year.
Both destinations are spending millions to stay top of mind, especially in Southern California, and both are closely watching the other’s moves.

Naturally, Hawai‘i tourism executives want to keep their plans and proprietary survey data confidential as much as is possible. That’s become more of a challenge for the Hawaii Tourism Authority, especially over the past year as tourism marketing has taken on almost desperate urgency.
But as more of the HTA’s agenda items have been moved out of public view in the name of competitive advantage, objections have been raised, especially to such indefensible items as “Discussion regarding sports events in Hawaii,” which was listed on the Feb. 20, 2009 agenda as a topic for closed executive session.
Apparently tired of having to explain its growing enthusiasm for secrecy, the HTA, a public agency funded by the transient accommodations tax, is pushing two bills that would give it the authority to keep more of its discussions confidential.
Today, Senate Bill 2187 will come up for a vote before that chamber’s Judiciary and Government Operations Committee. Similar legislation, HB 2445, has passed both its committees in the House.
The Senate measure would make it easier for the HTA to withhold “competitively sensitive” information from public disclosure.
The problems with this should be obvious. The law already carves out a sufficient exception for government agencies so they don’t have to release information that’s proprietary or that would harm the business interests of a company.
These bills would push things too far, with a new, enormous escape hatch.
Included in the shielded class would be “information that is necessary to protect Hawaiçi's competitive advantage as a visitor destination.”
That broad exclusion will not only keep the Mexicans in the dark but also Hawai‘i taxpayers. It’s easy to imagine the HTA making the case that almost all information should be held close to the vest to maintain a competitive edge.
The authority is operating on a budget of about $71 million this year, with most of it invested in promoting the state’s $12 billion tourism industry.
And that’s the thing when public money is involved: the process needs to err on the side of openness and transparency.
Besides, the HTA board is supposed to be focused on setting policy, not voting on whether to buy billboard space in Orange County.
If too many specific tactics are being discussed at the board level, then maybe this isn’t a secrecy issue at all, but an organizational one.