Let’s talk for a moment about HB 2742. It’s a very short bill that exempted “legislative bodies of the counties of this State” from the Hawaii Sunshine Law, which mandates certain rules governing open meetings. In other words, if the bill passes, deliberative bodies like the Maui County Council would no longer have to maintain quorums of members before meeting or publish agendas and notices days in advance. Put simply, they would be able to meet with whoever they wanted and discuss whatever they wanted and decide on courses of action entirely in secret.
The bill, introduced by Calvin Say (“by the request of another party,” according to the legislative website), immediately spurred furious reaction from citizens across the state. Their comments mostly ranged from straight opposition to revolutionary anger. On Feb. 21, the House Judiciary Committee very shrewdly voted to defer the measure, effectively banishing it to limbo for the rest of the legislative session.
Of course, I said people “mostly” hate the bill. That’s because four lonely individuals stood up to say they thought the bill was a right, peachy idea. These individuals are Maui County Councilmembers Danny Mateo, Joseph Pontanilla, Bob Carroll and Mike White.
“Thank you for the opportunity to testify in support of this important measure,” Mateo wrote to the House Judiciary Committee Chairman Gil Keith-Agaran on Feb. 18 (Pontanilla, Carroll and White wrote much shorter letters, basically just referring to Mateo’s letter and saying something to the effect of “What he said”).
Now the Maui County Council never voted on whether to support HB 2742. Nonetheless, Mateo was sufficiently moved to write his letter of support to Keith-Agaran anyway, noting that “I am providing this testimony in my capacity as an individual member of the Maui County Council.”
Mateo started off by contrasting a law-making body like the County Council with an appointed board. His conclusion was that the Sunshine Law needed to govern appointed boards because they “have little accountability to the public once appointed and a narrow scope of responsibilities.” But Mateo said an elected body should be treated differently.
“[W]hen applied to an elected board like a county council, who has direct accountability to the electorate and a broad range of responsibilities, these same [Sunshine Law] interpretations unjustifiably interfere with the important legislative work of the County Council,” Mateo wrote. For that reason, Mateo added, “the State Legislature was wise to exempt itself from the Sunshine Law, and should give the same consideration to the county councils.”
The idea that the state Legislature was “wise” to exempt itself from open meeting requirements is hardly a universally held view. “The city council must not be exempted from sunshine laws,” wrote Choon James of Country Talk Story on Feb. 20. “Otherwise, it would disintegrate into what the House and Senate is like today.”
But Mateo pushed further with the view that getting elected provided a level of accountability that transcended the need for public meetings. “[E]lected officials are directly accountable to the constituencies that elected them,” Mateo wrote. “If an elected official is conducting back-room deals, out of the eye of the public, then the official will not be re-elected.”
As to how the public would learn of secret back-room meetings in the absence of Sunshine Law protections, Mateo didn’t say. But no matter–Mateo waited until the very end of his letter before giving his real reason for supporting HB 2742.
“With the strict regulations of the Sunshine Law on prohibited interactions, council members have little or no opportunity to communicate outside of meetings to find areas of agreement and avoid misunderstandings,” he wrote.
Bingo! Mateo wants council members to be able to meet in secret, without quorums or properly noticed agendas and away from public scrutiny because it’s just more convenient for them. Debating issues in front of citizens and television cameras is, to be honest, rather messy. There’s great danger that hidden agendas and secret lobbying will be exposed. And we all know how ugly disagreements between council members can get.
You know what? Too bad. Democracy is at its messiest when it’s practiced openly and honestly. Secret meetings attract secret kickbacks, bribes and payoffs. More government, not less, needs to fall under the state’s open meetings requirements.
Of course, if the potential for public embarrassment and hard work is too much for Mateo, Pontanilla, Carroll and White, they’re more than free to find what would undoubtedly be far more lucrative employment in the private sector.