When the editorial board of Civil Beat last wrote about Senate Bill 3252on February 22, it still had to go through the state Senate, the state House of Representatives, and be approved by both houses in the conference committee to pass.
It’s no small set of hurdles, and most bills in a legislative session don’t do the trick.
SB 3252, however – which would make it easier for the public to obtain copies of the government’s public records – passed in the final days of the session with unanimous support. It is heartening that the legislature is so committed to a fundamental public right.
There is only one step left for the bill to become law: approval by Governor David Ige. He has until June 27 to say which bills he plans to veto and until July 12 to veto, sign, or let the bills become law without his signature.
SB 3252 is long-awaited common-sense legislation that would help correct an unfortunate trend in state and county government: the charging of exorbitant fees by agencies to copy public records at the request of individuals, public interest groups and the media.
SB 3252 would put a limit on reproduction costs, which include not only the production of copies of documents, but the staff time that goes into the job.
Copy charges would be waived entirely for producing them in electronic format and, more importantly, when the public interest is served by disclosing the documents.
SB 3252 would also allocate $185,000 to the state’s Office of Information Practices — the agency that administers the Uniform Information Practices Act requiring open access to government records — to hire two full-time workers to help the OIP during the 2022-2023 financial year.
A resistant administration
The big concern, however, is that Ige could be influenced by his own department heads to kill the bill. While some were mildly supportive of its intent, several departments – including the attorney general’s office – opposed the bill in the final. round of public testimony in April, and many organizations have proposed changes.
“The sad reality is that the department and its programs do not have dedicated staff or resources to respond to requests for documents; time spent on responses interrupts the completion of regular tasks,” wrote Cathy Betts, director of the Department of Social Services.
Libby Char, chair of the Department of Health, wrote: “Complex requests take up a lot of time and resources, and distract state employees from their day-to-day tasks.
The OIP itself has warned that SB 3252 could “encourage the filing of more complex and large registration applications”.
Several agencies in the city and county of Honolulu have also raised similar issues.
Such arguments are irrelevant and really do not hold water. Are department heads really intimidated by the public wanting access to their own records? There’s no evidence to suggest the agencies are bombarded with requests for public records to begin with.
Brian Black, executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, regularly studies the flow of public records requests to state and county agencies. In a June 6 letter to Ige seeking approval of SB 3252, he noted that requests made by public interest organizations “represent a very small number of requests per year. Typical of most years, in fiscal year 2021, these public interest requests represented less than 5% of all requests.
Black also pointed out that a random survey of states including Hawaii on public records just two years ago found that Hawaii agencies were charging more than double any other state in the survey.
“Many jurisdictions have clear statutory language that public interest requests will not be fettered by government fees,” he wrote.
Organizations that consistently advocate for open government like the League of Women Voters of Hawaii, the ACLU of Hawaii and the Hawaii Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists are also urging Ige to sign the bill.
Stirling Morita, SPJ chairman, wrote that the bill would “discourage attempts by agencies to use high fees to frustrate media seeking to shed light on agency operations.”
Civil Beat has experienced such attempts first hand. In 2012, DHS requested $123,000 to review all public records requests it had received during the previous year. In 2016, the Department of Public Safety wanted to charge $23,000 to provide records of violence involving Hawaiian inmates to an Arizona jail that should have been readily available.
Civil Beat is not the only organization frustrated in its requests for recordings. In 2019, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported that DPS said it would cost over $1 million to publish data relating to the detention of detainees beyond their planned release dates.
And it’s not just the media that work in the public interest. The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest identifies several relevant and timely examples on its website:
“The Sierra Club wanted more information about Red Hill from the Department of Health. Kilakila O Haleakala wanted to know about the University of Hawaii’s efforts to politically influence a telescope-related audience on Haleakala. The Center for Food Safety wanted more information from the Department of Agriculture on testing in GMO agricultural fields. The Hawaii Institute of Education wanted more information about the finances of the Department of Education. The Grassroot Institute of Hawaii wanted more information about the alternatives the Honolulu Rapid Transit Authority considered after a lack of funding.
It’s taxpayers money
It’s more important than ever to make it easier for the public to find out what elected officials do and how government agencies conduct public affairs.
“Across all sectors of government, this bill will empower the community to shine a light on government officials and make it harder for the corruption, incompetence and inefficiency that thrive in the shadows,” Black wrote. . “Unsurprisingly, agencies oppose the bill because they prefer to keep the public in the dark.”
In her testimony, SPJ’s Morita did not buy the agencies’ complaint that they were unduly burdened by the claimants.
“While we understand the concerns expressed by government agencies, we note that the salaries of employees to process such requests are already paid for by the taxes we all pay. We don’t think this would make a big dent in agency budgets.
Ige himself recognized the importance of making public records available whenever possible. During a question-and-answer session with a candidate in 2014, when he was first running for a high office, he was asked the following: “Would you support the elimination of research and writing fees and documents free to the public, except for basic copying costs?
Ige’s response: “Yes. We must limit charges to basic copy costs. »
It’s time to hold it.
Contact Ige with your views on SB 3252 and be sure to include the invoice number in your email.