Hawaii Governor David Ige’s empty promises on government accountability

Like many politicians, Governor David Ige presents himself as a supporter of transparency and accountability. On July 12, when he vetoed Senate Bill 3252, Governor Ige gave up smoke and mirrors.

Ignoring a unanimous legislature and a public demanding change, he distanced himself from any pretense of governmental accountability and cemented his reputation as a governor committed to keeping the public in the dark.

The people of Hawaii need the candidates running to be our next governor to commit to doing better. They must commit to actively supporting the next SB 3252 session.

SB 3252 would have clarified that media outlets and nonprofits cannot be charged hundreds or thousands of dollars to have an agency review public records before the records are released.

For example, under SB 3252, if a reporter wishes to review building permit records or supply contracts in the City and County of Honolulu to follow up on reports of bribes, the journalist can do it for free. Other requesters – business entities, attorneys, and those who do not have the intention and ability to educate the general public about the records – would still have to pay fees.

Existing law already provides a “waiver” of fees for these “public interest” requests. When the Legislature authorized the fees in 1988, it explained that the fees “must not be a means of denying access to public records” and called for the application to “act aggressively against any agency that uses these fees to chill the exercise of First Amendment rights.”

Governor David Ige speaks during a Covid-19 press conference at the Captiol.
Governor David Ige had no rational reason to veto a bill that would have facilitated public access to government records. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The Legislature (including former Rep. Ige) recognized that excessive fees as a barrier to public access would be the easiest way for agencies to cover up incompetence or corruption and hide from public scrutiny.

But attorneys general over the past 25 years have allowed agencies to intentionally abuse the fee structure by requiring prepayment of fees so high (and unwarranted) — after granting a discount of just $30 — that claimants public interest systematically drop the request.

If you went to the movies and were told that admission fees would be waived, how would you feel if the movie theater demanded $10 at the door?

This is a discounted rate, but would you consider this a waiver?

SB 3252 would have simply clarified what everyone already knows: waiver means no charge.

Embrace “fear, anxiety”

In 2014, Governor Ige expressly supported limiting fees for public records to copy fees only – not just for public interest requesters, but for everyone. This gave the public hope for a more transparent government in Hawaii.

Then the pandemic happened. Governor Ige embraced the agencies’ fear and anxiety and said the Public Records Act no longer exists. No other governor in the country has done it, not one.

Who thinks the public deserves less information in an emergency? It took months before the public regained some access and a year and a half before Governor Ige fully reinstated the law.

To justify his actions, he would claim that agencies received more public records requests during the pandemic than in previous years. But, much to Governor Ige’s embarrassment, government agencies have been tracking information about document requests for years. The data completely contradicts the governor’s statements (state agencies: fiscal year 2019, 7,547 requests; fiscal year 2020, 5,604 requests; fiscal year 2021, 3,705 requests).

Governor Ige’s explanation for his veto of SB 3252 is more or less the same. First, it asserts that the waiver would apply to “virtually all requests for documents”. If he had actually read the legislation and accompanying committee reports that emphasized the limited scope of the waiver – or if the Attorney General had properly explained its effect to him – it would be obvious that the fee waiver does not extend not all requests.

Official claims data reports show that the waiver would only apply to 2-3% of claims. Even in a more inclusive review of public interest applicants, the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest calculated that the waiver would only apply to 5% of applications.

For someone who constantly references his professional training as an engineer when criticized, Governor Ige’s lack of attention to detail and hard data is surprising – if he really cared about transparency.

Next, Governor Ige says agencies are using fees to discourage applications. This is precisely why the SB 3252 is needed. The Legislature emphasized that the fee waivers fulfill the essential role of public records “to maintain government accountability and transparency and support citizen participation in government decision-making.” Excessive fees for records mean that only the wealthy and elite have access to information that influences the workings of our government.

Finally, Governor Ige says agencies should pay overtime and disregard their normal duties to respond to registration requests. The law, however, already provides that agencies can slow down a response indefinitely if responding to a record request unreasonably interferes with normal duties. It is amazing that the Attorney General allowed Governor Ige to make such a grossly inaccurate statement of law.

Governor Ige had no rational justification for vetoing SB 3252.

Current gubernatorial candidates must commit to transparency and accountability in government. Too many examples of corruption and incompetence have rocked Hawaii in recent years. There is no better solution to such shady behavior than the light of public scrutiny and an informed electorate.

Specifically, candidates must pledge to introduce and defend SB 3252 as part of the Governor’s package of bills for the upcoming 2023 legislative session. After Governor Ige’s empty campaign promises, a vague pledge to increasing transparency is obviously not enough.

The public should know exactly where the next governor stands on government accountability, starting with a commitment to get SB 3252 passed by the Legislative Assembly and signed into law by this time next year.

Governor Ige had no rational justification for vetoing SB 3252. His decision was motivated solely by fear of transparency.

Our next governor should not leave us in the dark. Be better – and maybe find an attorney general who understands that government attorneys have responsibilities to both their client agencies and the public interest.

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