A bad week for sunshine

It was another bad week for sunshine on Maui.

A judge’s decision on Tuesday that a lawsuit protesting the way the Liquor Control Commission promulgated changes in rules about alcohol sales was “moot” because the changes have since been reversed missed the point of the suit.

Kihei resident Madge Schaefer and her Committee for Responsible Liquor Control Sales alleged in the suit that the commission and the Liquor Control Department violated the Sunshine Law by not giving proper notice for a February meeting where rules were changed.

They maintained that an agenda item dealing with the changes was so vague no reasonable person would have known the commission was going to allow 24-hour liquor sales, permit home delivery of alcohol and remove the cap on the number of hostess bars.

We are glad the commission reversed itself on the rule changes after a strong public protest. But the way they were adopted in the first place is troubling.

The Liquor Control Commission is not the only agency in the county or the state that has grown comfortable making decisions in private. Unfortunately, Hawaii has a very weak Sunshine Law and the agency charged with overseeing it — the Office of Information Practices — is a toothless tiger with no enforcement capabilities. It can issue opinions and that’s about it.

The result is that many councils, commissions and boards have become used to conducting discussions about controversial issues in “executive session” and then simply announcing their decisions in a public setting. That deprives the general public of learning the “why” behind governmental decision-making.

The only true protection for “sunshine” on these matters is if a private individual or group — like Schaefer and the CRLCS — files suit asking a court to decide if the letter and the spirit of the open meetings law was complied with. That, of course, is onerous and expensive for the individual or group.

Until Hawaii’s Sunshine Law is strengthened, it is going to be hard for average citizens to glimpse the “sausage-making” that goes into governmental decision-making. Somehow, we wish the public-spirited folks who serve on boards, councils and commissions would realize citizens have a fundamental right to know why decisions are made.

Sunshine and transparency are not government’s enemies.

* Editorials reflect the opinion of the publisher.