Maui County Council Members Fire Yet Another Salvo At Hawaii Sunshine Law

Operation Iraqi Freedom II

As I’ve detailed on many previous posts, a considerable majority of the Maui County Council views the state’s open meetings law–also called the “Sunshine Law”–with feelings ranging from muttering disagreement to contemptuous disdain. And why not? The law restricts them from getting together in groups comprising a quorum without officially sending out notices to the public, posting an agenda, keeping minutes, etc. In other words, it prevents them from meeting and deciding the public’s business in secret.

For at least a decade, assorted Maui County Council members have bad-mouthed the Sunshine Law and openly lobbied for legislation that would emasculate or kill it (click here for a 2013 blog post I wrote on the Council’s greatest hits in their war against Open Meetings).

Well, they’re at it again, supporting HB 2139, a new bill proposed by Maui’s own Kyle Yamashita, D–Upcountry. The bill would alter the Open Meetings act to allow an unlimited number of city or county council members to attend various meetings and/or presentations, without the need for pesky things like meeting notices or agendas.

As can be expected, Maui County Council chairwoman Gladys Baisa loves this bill. Here’s an excerpt from her Mar. 10 testimony she submitted in support of the bill (which you can read here):

“The purpose of this measure was originally to increase interaction between elected officials and the public and to broaden access to educational opportunities as they arise. Open participation in informational meetings or presentations by elected officials will increase transparency and help to ensure responsiveness of council members to the public they serve.

“As amended, the measure would support this goal by allowing an unlimited number of members of a county council to attend an informational meeting or presentation relating to official board business, without violating the Sunshine Law, provided the meeting or presentation is not specifically and exclusively organized for or directed toward members of the board.”

See, Baisa just wants to “increase transparency” and “ensure responsiveness” (that council members could also do so by meeting individually with members of the public in their offices seems not to count). Maui County Councilmembers Robert Carroll, Stacy Helm Crivello and Mike Victorino also submitted brief statements of support for the bill, as did Maui County Mayor Alan Arakawa (you can check out all of there testimony here and here).

As can also be expected, a number of media and government watchdog organizations take a slightly different view than Baisa’s. For instance, here’s the League of Women Voters‘ view on the bill, which came to me in the form of a Mar. 12 press release:

“If HB 2139 HD 1 becomes law, all county council members could be invited to attend an ‘informational meeting or presentation’ organized by proponents of a special interest project. Prior public notice would not be required. Only invitees might know about the ‘meeting or presentation’ even if the event were open and ‘free’ to the public. At the ‘meeting or presentation’, the proponents could make a one-sided presentation in support of a special interest project and then discuss the project with a quorum or even all council members. It would be possible for the host to structure the ‘meeting or presentation’ to prevent the public from asking questions or participating in discussions. Regardless of how many council members participate, minutes would not be required.”

The state Office of Information Practices, Common Cause Hawaii, Media Council Hawaii, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Hawaii chapter, Big Island Press Club and attorney Lance Collins all filed similar denunciations of HB 2139.

So far though, bill supporters are winning. As of Mar. 11, the Senate Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs Committee passed the bill unanimously.

Photo: Gunnery Sgt. Robert K. Blankenship, U.S. Marine Corps/Wikimedia Commons