How to kill civic trust
From Grassroot Institute, April 24, 2020
“Sunlight,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in 1913, “is said to be the best of disinfectants.”
That short sentence sums up the philosophy behind government transparency.
Sunlight and openness are essential to keeping our lawmakers and administrative officials honest and accountable to citizens. If the people cannot see how decisions are being made, what the bases for those decisions are or how their money is being spent, they cannot guard against waste, fraud, backroom deals or other abuses.
Even in normal times, it requires multiple watchdog organizations to make sure our government is open and accountable.
Now, however, we are experiencing something extremely abnormal. With his supplemental emergency proclamation on March 16, Gov. David Ige suspended Hawaii’s open-records laws and significantly limited the application of Hawaii’s open-meetings laws.
The Grassroot Institute has joined with a coalition of concerned organizations in asking the governor to reconsider his actions. Together, we have requested that the government issue new guidelines that would restore the state’s sunshine laws to the fullest extent possible during this statewide lockdown period.
In a webinar sponsored the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii this past Tuesday, Brian Black of Civil Beat Law Center and Sandy Ma of Common Cause Hawaii joined me to discuss the issue and chart a way forward that would restore transparency to the state.
Brian pointed out that no other state in the country has taken a measure as extreme as Hawaii in suspending its sunshine laws. It is true that it can be difficult to conduct government business and comply with sunshine laws while practicing social distancing, avoiding groups, and working from home. However, there also are measures the state could take to mitigate those difficulties.
Sandy outlined the many different technologies that could be utilized to allow the public to view government meetings and offer testimony. From web conferencing to just the simple use of telephones, there are multiple options that would uphold the spirit of the sunshine laws.
Rather than suspending those laws entirely, Hawaii could take advantage of technology, postpone all nonessential meetings and allow more flexibility to respond to open-records requests. This would go a long way toward assuaging our concerns about transparency during the lockdown.
Some might ask why we are so focused on this issue right now. Why should people care about transparency during a time of emergency?
The answer is that government transparency doesn’t become less important during an emergency. If anything, it becomes more important.
Right now, critical decisions are being made at all levels of local government. These are decisions that affect our businesses, our civil rights and the future of our economic livelihoods. Hawaii’s citizens have a right to be a part of that process.
This is why we need the state to restore transparency as soon as possible.
State and county leaders are asking us to trust their decision-making. But the only way to really secure public trust is to make government open and transparent.
In other words, we need a lot more sunshine.
E hana kakou! (Let’s work together!)
Keli'i Akina, Ph.D.
President/CEO, Grassroot Institute