Sunshine is important

In our democratic republic, we elect representatives to enact laws and administer governmental functions. There are checks and balances built into the system so no legislator or administrator becomes all-powerful.

Additionally, all 50 states, the District of Columbia and the federal government have open-meeting laws, also called “Sunshine Laws.” According to the website of the Reporters Committee For Freedom of the Press, “These laws do not necessarily ensure that members of the public will be allowed to address the agency, but they do guarantee that the public and the media can attend the meetings.”

Simply put, Sunshine Laws are designed to let the public know not only what, but why representatives make the decisions they make.

There are exceptions allowing executive sessions – most notably to discuss personnel issues and to consult with legal counsel on lawsuits. But these should be rare. And the law says those instances “may” be discussed in executive session, not “must” be.

In Hawaii, the agency charged with determining if agencies are in compliance with the Sunshine Law is the Office of Information Practices. Now, in order to determine compliance, OIP often will request minutes of meetings if a question or complaint is filed. Hawaii’s Sunshine Law requires that complete minutes be kept of both open and executive sessions.

Last August, The Maui News asked OIP to investigate the County Council’s actions when, after an executive session, members voted to ask the county auditor to intervene in the investigation of the old Wailuku Post Office demolition and to exempt the county corporation counsel from the investigation. The vote meant that the committee opposed paying for independent counsel.

When OIP asked for minutes of the executive session, the office was given a heavily redacted version. OIP assured the county that the minutes would be reviewed privately. OIP gave the county until Dec. 11 to comply with its request.

Instead, the county filed suit, saying it would be “irreparably harmed” if OIP ruled it in violation of the Sunshine Law or, apparently, if OIP were allowed to read the unredacted minutes.

It is our feeling that if the county prevails in this suit, the state’s Sunshine Law will be gutted. If councils, committees, the Legislature, etc., can go into executive session without any possible review by OIP, then the law becomes moot.

What a shameful legacy that would be.

* Editorials reflect the opinion of the publisher.