The Hawaii County Council will not support attempts by other counties to weaken the state Sunshine Law.
The council Committee on Governmental Relations and Economic Development voted 8-0 Tuesday to reject a proposal from Maui County, a move that removes it from a package of initiatives the Hawaii State Association of Counties will present to the Legislature for the regular 2014 session that starts in January.
Hawaii County is the only county of the four that is rejecting the bill, if Tuesday’s votes, as expected, persist at the council level. All four counties must approve each bill in the HSAC package for it to be sent to the Legislature.
The bill would have created an exemption to the state Sunshine Law so that more than two council members could attend meetings and discuss issues that could come up on future council agendas, as long as the meeting is open to the public, even if minutes are not taken for the public record and the council members in attendance make no report of their discussion.
“You can essentially deliberate. You can have a debate,” said Corporation Counsel Lincoln Ashida, explaining the bill to council members. “You can go there and debate like it’s a council meeting.”
The resolution carves out an exception to the Sunshine Law by saying, “Members of a county council may jointly attend and speak at a community, educational or informational meeting or presentation, including a meeting of another entity, legislative hearing, convention, seminar, conference or community meeting, without limitation, provided that the meeting or presentation is open to the public.”
The Maui Council said in its resolution that allowing council members to discuss issues outside a noticed public meeting would help the council better serve constituents in a more “well-informed, transparent and responsive manner.”
But others did not agree.
Marianna Scheffer, vice president of the League of Women Voters of Hawaii County, warned the council that the measure would “move county government to the closed and darkened back room.”
“The public cannot truly know how their elected representatives think and act if issues are discussed, dissension is silenced and votes are counted in private,” Scheffer said. “Citizens do not need sound bites; we need thoughtful discussion and actual facts.”
“When a government feels the need to treat its citizens like mushrooms, you should know they are not your government,” added testifier Dave Kisor.
South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Brenda Ford said she at first was “a little bit torn” on the measure, but she now opposes it. The term, “without limitation” is “fraught with evil,” she said.
“This bill is poorly written,” Ford said. “It is so wide open that it can be abused at any hour of any day.”
Since Hawaii County is the last entity to vote on the package, the move whittles the original list of 14 measures to just three, unless the HSAC executive board intervenes. The committee also, by a 6-2 vote, killed a measure that would allow liquor license fees to be used in public and private abuse treatment programs.
The three surviving measures reduce liability for lifeguards, enable the state and counties to maintain government roads where ownership is in dispute without incurring liability and appropriate $2.8 million for a primary care training program at Hilo Medical Center.
Other bills that were rejected by at least one county would have required helmets statewide for motorcycle and motor scooter drivers and all mo-ped riders, given counties a greater share of the transient accommodations tax, allowed county residents to testify at state legislative hearings via videoconferencing, urged the federal government to loosen visa restrictions on Chinese visitors, added county representatives to the boards of trustees for the Employees’ Retirement System and the Hawaii Employer Union Health Benefits Trust Fund and appropriated $38 million for the Daniel K. Inouye School of Pharmacy Building at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.