Civic participation is a challenge during the time of coronavirus. Some agencies are finding ways to still include the public, despite Gov. David Ige's emergency order suspending the requirement among other state laws.
It’s been two weeks since the governor declared a state of emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic.
During times of emergency, the governor can suspend state laws, which Ige did to Hawaii’s government transparency requirements, along with more than 20 other statutes, under his March 16th emergency declaration.
The Uniform Information Practices Act, as the law is officially known, covers records requests to public agencies, was one of the measures suspended.
Another statute known as the Sunshine Law was also suspended by the proclomation. It establishes requirements like notifying the public about planned meetings and allowing community members to appear in person and provide feedback.
The good governance watch dog group Common Cause Hawaii, has come out strongly against the suspension of the Sunshine Law. On Tuesday, the group’s Executive Director Sandy Ma sent a letter to Gov. Ige, the state Legislature, all four county mayors, and the county councils urging them to restore the government transparency rules.
“We don’t really understand why Sunshine Law has to be waived. Especially during these times of crisis, we have to make sure government is functioning properly,” Ma told HPR.
The Common Cause letter was signed by more than 40 other public interest groups and individuals.
Ma notes that some agencies are making an effort to keep the public involved. She cited the State Ethics Commission as an example.
The Ethics Commission held its last meeting over teleconference, but still allowed the public to participate.
“There’s still a way for agencies to operate with transparency,” Ethics Commission Executive Director Dan Gluck said in an interview.
“We published the agenda six days in advance. We had the telephone number so that members of the public could call in and could testify.”
But Sandy Ma says other agencies are not making those kind of efforts.
She specifically cited the Maui County Council, which held its regular, biweekly meeting last Friday. The council took written testimony as usual, but did not accept any verbal testimony in person, due to social distancing requirements. Other county councils have instituted similar restrictions.
But Ma argues that written testimony is no substitute for in-person participation.
“Only allowing written testimony, this is not democracy, this is not transparency,” she countered.
That may be changing, however. Council Vice Chair Keani Rawlins-Fernandez used the video conferencing system BlueJeans in her committee meeting on Tuesday to allow residents to call in and provide live testimony.
“I wanted to ensure that the community still had the opportunity to participate meaningfully. And I don’t mind being the test subject or the Guinea pigs,” Rawlins-Fernandez said after the meeting. She appears to be the first public official to use a video conferencing system for live testimony.
Whether that system will be adopted for the April 3rd meeting of the full council will be up to Council Chair Alice Lee. She did not respond to an interview request.
Rawlins-Fernandez, a Molokai resident, hopes county councils and the state Legislature will adopt the practice permanently when the pandemic subsides.
She says it will be particularly beneficial for Maui County, which covers four inhabited islands. Officials currently overcome that geographic obstacle by physically flying to different communities or through phone conference calling.
Across the islands, each legislative body is handling the situation differently.
The Hawaii County Council held its last meetings over video conference and accepted written and pre-recorded video testimony.
The Kauai Council said in a Facebook post it will only accept written testimony at its next meeting on April 8th.
The state Legislature went on indefinite recess as a result of the pandemic. But the House and Senate coronavirus emergency committees are holding meetings, although the public cannot attend in person.
All of the bodies live stream their meetings online.
Correction: This story originally stated that the Uniform Information Practices Act and the Sunshine Law were part of the same statute. They are in the same chapter of Hawaii Revised Statutes, but are separate laws.