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Friday, December 26, 2014
Open Letter to Gov. Ige on Transparency
By News Release @ 10:20 PM :: 5883 Views :: First Amendment, Hawaii State Government

Attorney Brian Black, Executive Director of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, today met with Ige Administration Chief of Staff Mike McCartney to present the following open letter.  Black described his talk with McCartney as "productive" and anticipates further dialogue. 

Here is the full text: 

December 26, 2014

Honorable David Y. Ige

RE: Open Government in the State of Hawai‘i

Dear Governor Ige:

Congratulations on your election as the eighth governor of the State of Hawai‘i. We, the undersigned organizations, ask that you take this occasion to speak out strongly in favor of government transparency. We have seen rising public demand for openness and increasing public suspicion of institutions that respond to scrutiny without comment or full disclosure. An executive memorandum or order implementing the following three proposals would have a profound impact on access to government information.

1. State agencies should presume that government documents are public and invoke exceptions to disclosure only if they must, not simply because they can.

2. Each State agency should post contact information for the public to easily ascertain how to submit requests for records.

3. Requests made in the public interest should be charged, at most, only copying costs.

All of these proposals follow established models in federal policy and are consistent with the Legislature’s intent in enacting the Uniform Information Practices Act (Modified) (UIPA).

Government Records Are the Public’s Records

The Legislature enacted the UIPA on the principle that “Government agencies exist to aid the people in the formation and conduct of public policy. Opening up the government processes to public scrutiny and participation is the only viable and reasonable method of protecting the public’s interest.” Hawai‘i Revised Statutes (HRS) § 92F-2. The Legislature recognized that “[t]he proper functioning of any public records law is very much dependent upon the attitude of those who implement the law. Your Committee urges all agencies to accept this new law as a challenge and a mandate to ensure public access to the public’s government.” Conf. Comm. Rep. No. 112-88, in 1988 House Journal at 818. In this 25th year of the UIPA, it is safe to say that the State has not uniformly embraced that challenge. The following proposals are modest, meaningful steps toward more open government and are amenable to immediate implementation through executive policy.

Proposal 1: Absent Compelling Circumstances, State Officials Should Presume that Disclosure Serves the Public Interest Better than Secrecy

We ask that you use your authority to instruct State agencies to work collaboratively with requesters to make as much information available as possible and to invoke UIPA exceptions rarely and only with reluctance. The UIPA provides that “[a]ll government records are open to public inspection unless access is restricted or closed by law.” HRS § 92F-11(a); accord HRS § 92F-2 (“[I]t is the policy of this State that the formation and conduct of public policy—the discussions, deliberations, decisions, and action of government agencies—shall be conducted as openly as possible.”). Nevertheless, agencies frequently withhold records simply because a UIPA exception might apply.  With the Office of Information Practices (OIP) backlogged a year or more, requesters are left with little effective recourse unless they have the resources to litigate.

Confronting similar circumstances in the federal government, President Barack Obama issued an executive memorandum within his first month in office that ordered all federal agencies to “adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open Government.” Memorandum on Freedom of Information Act (January 21, 2009).1

The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears. Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of Government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve.  In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies (agencies) should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of the public.

Id. That memorandum led Attorney General Eric Holder to revise FOIA guidelines to provide that “[a]n agency should not withhold records merely because it can demonstrate, as a technical matter, that the records fall within the scope of a FOIA exemption.” Att’y Gen. Mem. on the Freedom of Information Act (March 19, 2009). 

Embracing a similar presumption of openness in Hawai‘i would revitalize the UIPA.  When the law allows discretion, State officials should evaluate whether there is a real need for secrecy, even if a UIPA exception technically might apply. State officials are custodians of the public trust and should affirmatively seek to make information as accessible as possible. Adopting a presumption of openness also allows agencies to respond more quickly to requests. Ultimately, the interaction between public official and requester should be cooperative—perceived by neither side as “us vs. them.”

Proposal 2: Each State Agency Should Publicly Post UIPA Contact Information

We ask that you use your authority to ensure that everyone knows where to send a UIPA request. Even if an agency lacks the resources for a dedicated UIPA coordinator, each agency should post on its website, at a minimum, a mailing address and an e-mail address for UIPA requests.

At present, the public cannot readily ascertain to whom a UIPA request should be addressed. There is no public directory or uniform system in place to identify UIPA contacts at each agency. Misdirected requests cause confusion at the agency and frustration for the requester.

Again, the federal government provides an instructive example. In 2005, by Executive Order 13,392, President George W. Bush ordered all federal agencies to designate FOIA Public Liaisons to handle public records requests and required the agencies to post contact information for the Public Liaisons on the agency’s website.3 As a result, every federal agency has a FOIA page on their website for easy public access.

The simple act of providing clear contact information for UIPA requests is a significant step to improve government transparency.

Proposal 3: Do Not Charge for Requests Made in the Public Interest

We ask that you use your authority to instruct State agencies to waive search, review, and redaction fees when a UIPA requester is acting in the public interest. In other words, agencies should not charge more than copying costs when someone has the ability to widely disseminate government information that is not otherwise publicly available.

In accordance with OIP regulations, the public interest is served when (1) requested documents concern government operations; (2) the documents are not readily available in the public domain; and (3) the requester intends and has the ability to widely disseminate the information to the public at large. Hawai‘i Administrative Rules (HAR) § 2-71-32(b). Even if a requester meets that standard, however, OIP only requires that agencies reduce the applicable fees by $60; it does not provide a waiver of fees. Id. § 2-71-32(a). Nevertheless, under the UIPA, agencies have the discretion to waive all search, review, and redaction fees.

In FY 2014, State agencies produced documents in response to 116 public interest requests, which requests were less than 5% of all granted or partially granted UIPA requests. The State collected only $932.50 in search, review, and redaction fees for those requests. If the public interest requesters had not been willing to pay those fees, information that helps the public understand how its government operates would have languished out of sight.

Eight other public interest requests were abandoned or withdrawn in FY 2014 after the State agency estimated search, review, or redaction costs in excess of $100. For those eight requests, the agency’s decision to impose discretionary fees frustrated public understanding of government operations. While cost estimates might reflect a request’s potential burden on agency resources, agencies first should assist requesters by explaining how records are maintained and suggesting ways to narrow the request.  But, ultimately, an agency has authority to break larger requests into increments to avoid interfering with agency business. Cost estimates should never be used to discourage a requester willing to widely disseminate government information.

Conclusion

Given the intrinsic benefits of open government, we ask that you begin your Administration by facilitating public access to government records.

Mahalo for your kokua. If you have any questions or would like to discuss our concerns in more detail, please contact any of the organizations identified below.

Signers:

  • League of Women Voters
  • Common Cause
  • HNN
  • KHON
  • HPR
  • KITV
  • Civil Beat
  • Hawaii Open Data
  • AP
  • Society of Professional Journalists
  • Maui Time
  • Maui News
  • Hawaii Reporter
  • Hawaii Independent
  • Big Island Press Club
  • Media Council Hawaii
  • Hawaii Appleseed Center
  • Grassroot Institute
  • Hawai'i Free Press
  • Molokai News
  • ACLU Hawaii
  • Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest

cc: Cheryl Kakazu Park, OIP Director

LINK: PDF of Letter

  *   *   *   *   *

Grassroot Institute Joins Letter Asking Governor To Improve Transparency

From Grassroot Institute, December 28, 2014

In theory, Hawaii’s open government laws are good ones, requiring greater transparency than many other states and promoting the idea that open government is a key to good government and an informed citizenry.

But that’s only in theory.

In practice, those who attempt to request government records or invoke sunshine laws are often met with delay and obfuscation–the very opposite of what such laws are intended to accomplish. After one of our most recent information requests was denied, the Office of Information Practices agreed that the information requested should probably be released, but said that any action from them could take as long as a year.

In the effort to improve government transparency in Hawaii, the Grassroot Institute (along with 21 other concerned organizations) has signed on to a letter to Governor Ige requesting that the he take strong action to improve open government in our state. Citing the “increasing public suspicion of institutions that respond to scrutiny without comment or full disclosure,” the letter goes on to outline three positive steps that could be taken via executive order or memorandum:

  1. State agencies should presume that government documents are public and invoke exceptions to disclosure only if they must, not simply because they can.

  2. Each state agency should post contact information for the public to easily ascertain how to submit requests for records.

  3. Requests made in the public interest should be charged, at most, only copying costs.

Among the other signatories are Honolulu Civil Beat, Hawaii News Now, Hawaii Public Radio, KITV, KHON, the League of Women Voters, and the Associated Press. (The letter can be read in its entirety here.) That such a large and disparate group has felt it necessary to request this action from the Governor speaks to the delays and frustrations that accompany requests for public records. In order to have true government accountability and discourage waste and corruption, we must have real and substantial reform in the fulfillment and enforcement of Hawaii’s transparency laws.

The Grassroot Institute will continue to work to expose government waste and wrongdoing as well as push for greater transparency. Look for more announcements and information regarding our transparency efforts in the coming weeks.

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