When called upon to deal with catastrophic demands for government services, anything less than criticism is going to be pushing through the back burner, or just switching off altogether. This is not surprising.
However, the governor’s decision to suspend the state’s Sunshine Law, the requirement of government agencies to conduct business at open meetings and advance notice, as well as laws that make government records open and available, could have the associated public consequence, distracted by other miseries, not imagined and must work to avoid.
Gov. David Ige issued the announcement, a supplement to his emergency proclamation on coronavirus pandemics, shortly after the state House and Senate voted to suspend the current session of the legislature.
The decision, published March 17, stemmed from recommendations by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that all rallies with 50 or more people be canceled or postponed over an eight-week period. Of course, since then there have been curves against even smaller groups, with this week’s launch in a statewide arena doing activities that are less than essential harder to do.
So yes, public meetings will be non-routine, open door rally – and yes, some meetings now will need to be called in unscheduled time. The need for the government to move nimbly will overcome the imperative to advise everyone well in advance, so that they might fall into.
But it should not be followed that the public should lose all its ability to know what the government is doing. The federal experience during the 2008 financial bailout provides some context: Many officials point to a lack of oversight over government programs working for the benefit of financial institutions, and not the taxpayer who funded the relief package.
Here in Hawaii there will be a lot more impromptu meetings, virtual or otherwise, by elected officials and others. Without the protection of the Sunshine Act, they will be free to have conversations about the business they are supposed to be doing in the name of the public – in-person meetings, using online conferences or phone calls.
State law on public records was also suspended, according to a statement from the Attorney General’s Office, “to give the government maximum flexibility to focus its attention and personal resources” on the crisis imperative rather than on records.
Has the government timely issued records? Probably not.
But the government should expect to keep records of all meetings, impromptu, online and any other kind. Once the crisis subsides, people should ask: When was this decision made, and why?
The government must be responsible for making decisions that affect public welfare, even if people have less of an opportunity to look official at work.
It appears that some agencies are making an effort to this end. Sandy Ma, executive director of the Hawaii Nonprofit Common Government Bonds, noted that the state Ethics Commission has issued a call-in option for anyone wanting to “attend” the meeting, set for Friday, by teleconference. Another example: the state Senate Special Committee on COVID-19 has been livestreaming its hearing on how the state is dealing with the pandemic. That’s encouraging.
However, the governor’s order says only such access provisions may be made “at the sole discretion of the department or agency.” That should not be the case, or at least the waivers from such a condition should be more targeted to circumstantial circumstances.
It is good for the government to do its job faster in a crisis. But the public still deserves access – and see if the government is doing its job in the interests of the people.