What’s Not New: OIP Works Hard to Ensure Timely Public Access to Government Records and Meetings

Posted on Mar 13, 2023 in Featured, What's New

Sunshine Week is the time to get the facts about what Hawai`i’s Office of Information Practices (OIP) does to ensure public participation in State and county government via two important laws that it administers: the Uniform Information Practices Act (UIPA) mandating public access to government records, and the Sunshine Law requiring open meetings of government boards.

At the start of the COVID lockdowns in 2020, OIP was the early advocate for proposed amendments to the Sunshine Law to allow remote meetings online so that boards could continue working while safely ensuring, and actually increasing, public access to meetings.  With public input, OIP drafted the bill that was eventually enacted in 2021 as Act 220, which now permanently allows remote meetings for government boards.  OIP then spent months comprehensively revising its free online training materials to explain to boards and the public the new remote meeting provisions that took effect on January 1, 2022.  Today, remote meetings have proven to be a popular way for the public to conveniently participate in board meetings.

OIP assists the general public and all State and county agencies in every branch of Hawai`i’s government to understand and properly apply these two important laws, with only about half the budget and employees that it had 29 years ago in 1994 when OIP administered only the UIPA.  As a neutral agency, OIP must fairly administer the UIPA and Sunshine Law for everyone, which means it does not always agree with the positions of either government agencies or advocates promoting special interests.  The UIPA and Sunshine Law contain various exceptions to records disclosure and open meetings and require the reasonable balancing of many factors and competing interests.  When resolving disputes or testifying on legislative proposals, OIP impartially considers all sides of an issue, objective evidence, and the intended and unintended costs and consequences of proposed legislation on government operations and the general public.

A source of objective data on how the UIPA works for the public is the UIPA Record Request Log that all State and county agencies provide to OIP, which OIP summarizes annually in reports posted on its Reports page at oip.hawaii.gov.  Consistent with past data, OIP’s most recent 2022 Log reports show that agencies take an average of eight working days to respond to a typical record request, and 85-90% of requesters pay nothing for records.  In contrast, complex requests take considerably more time and resources, and federal agencies reportedly take hundreds of days, if not years, to respond to record requests made under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

When requesters have trouble obtaining records from a State or county agency under the UIPA, or question whether a government board is following the Sunshine Law’s requirements, they can turn to OIP for free help.  OIP provides informal advice on the laws, usually within the same business day, through its Attorney of the Day (AOD) service. OIP also provides advice to anyone on how to comply with these laws, which helps to prevent violations and disputes.  For disputes that cannot be resolved through informal advice, OIP offers formal assistance including appeals, which take longer to resolve as they may require written opinions that could be challenged in court.  Under OIP’s current director, OIP has reduced the age of pending appeals from 12 to 3 years by prioritizing the resolution of oldest appeals first.  While appeals take time to resolve, OIP quickly resolves 97% of all requests for its services within the same year, with 89% typically resolved the same day.  OIP works hard to ensure timely public access to government records and meetings.

Mahalo to the Honolulu Star Advertiser for publishing this, with minor edits, as an Island Voices article on March 13, 2023.