Bill calls for more timely decisions by Office of Information Practices

A bill in the state Legislature aims to improve the efficiency of the state’s Office of Information Practices sixfold.

Senate Bill 3092 would, if passed, require the Office of Information Practices to resolve public complaints regarding public information noncompliance within six months of receiving the complaint.

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The bill would provide a welcome relief to complainants to the Office of Information Practices, which can take more than three years to process a single complaint.

According to a report by Honolulu Civil Beat, Hawaii is the worst state in the nation for providing timely decisions regarding open records issues. While the majority of states are able to respond to all complaints within six months, Hawaii’s longest response times can reach nearly 1,400 days, or 3.8 years.

Earlier this month, Brian Black, executive director of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, issued strong support for the proposal during a hearing for the bill.

“Reviewing data from OIP, the Law Center discovered last year that time taken to resolve complaints has quadrupled in recent years, fewer complaints on average are being resolved each year and OIP’s backlog is trending upward despite a downward trend in new filings,” Black testified. “Our more recent analysis revealed that only three of the 46 OIP decisions from 2015-17 were issued in less than two years.”

Bob Duerr, treasurer of the Big Island Press Club, expressed his support for the bill in an email.

“The Office of Information Practices’ motto is ‘ensuring open government while protecting individual privacy,’” Duerr wrote. “However, OIP is often found missing in inaction. One of BIPC’s members has been waiting since 2013 for basic emergency management maps. OIP was created to keep Hawaii government open but has become yet another citizen-funded agency that defers and deflects transparency.”

During the hearing, several others presented testimony expressing support for the bill. Attorney Lance D. Collins testified that one case of his regarding a procurement protest took so long to resolve that the procurement being protested had itself been resolved by the time a decision was made.

Larry Geller of Honolulu said a request he made in 2014 for information regarding pesticides could have influenced state legislatures, but the request took far too long for the information to be relevant when he finally received it. In fact, Geller only received the information earlier this month.

“In the distant past, even my most contentious disputes were resolved quite expeditiously,” Geller wrote. “With assistance from the Attorney of the Day at the OIP office, most of my several requests for help were attended to in a timely manner and did not lead to disputes.”

Stirling Morita, president of the Hawaii chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, cast his support behind the bill, saying it would help state journalists work more quickly and accurately.

“In journalism, all some bureaucrat has to do to discourage publication of an article is delay the release of records,” Morita wrote. “The longer the wait, the less newsworthy the subject matter may become.”

In fact, the only testimony in opposition to the bill was that of OIP Director Cheryl Kakazu Park. Park raised concerns with the consequences of the time requirement, predicting that the quality of the office’s opinions would vastly diminish, that the office might have to charge a fee per request and more.

Park ultimately argued that, in order for the office to successfully adapt to the six-month deadline, the bill’s effective date should be delayed three years in order for the office to find and train the additional employees the bill would require, as well as the reversal of “decades of underfunding.” Park pointed out that the OIP’s current budget is, adjusted for inflation, only 42 percent of its highest-ever budget in 1994, while the office has taken on nearly double its 1994 workload after the passage of the Sunshine Law.

Sen. Russell Ruderman, D-Puna, one of the bill’s 17 co-sponsors, said he is “always on the side of public information,” but added he is sympathetic to Park’s plight.

“It is important to have these things processed quickly, but it’s also quite likely that the office needs additional funding and resources,” Ruderman said.

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The bill was passed by the Senate Committee on Government Operations earlier this month and was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.