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The Choice between Open Government versus Government Decision Making by a Handful of Elite Powerbrokers

We Big Island citizens are challenging the status quo. We are challenging the Hilo-side powerbrokers lead by Council Chair J Yoshimoto with the help of his freshman associate Council members and assistant Clerk Goodenow. We are challenging Yoshimoto’s ability to control our county by way of clandestine meetings and vote canvassing. If we are not able to make these folks accountable for their actions, don’t complain if these practices continue, but in a less flagrant more secretive manner.

The residents of this county are at a turning point. We face a choice between allowing the good ol’ boy “behind closed door” style of politics to continue unabated versus insisting on adherence to the Open Meeting- public participation model of government decision-making. It is the Council Chair who has the authority and the power to allow or not allow secretive decision-making to be part of this legislative process. Our Council Chair Yoshimoto allowed and participated in these clandestine exchanges of the recent “coup” to oust several other council members from their leadership positions. However, according to Chair Yoshimoto we citizens should “move on” because he believes allowing the Council members the opportunity to admit to their private contacts with other Council members absolves them of any potential Sunshine Law violation. Bottom line: if Yoshimoto is allowed to continue as Chairman, are we not asking for, or at least accepting, more of the same?

Richard Pratt and Zachary Smith in their book “Hawaii Politics and Government “(University of Nebraska Press 2000) speak of the dominance of the “ good ‘ol boy” dominated rule in Hawaii. They see the current choice as one between greater institutional openness versus continuing the status quo of government decision-making based on privileged insider relationships. To advance towards a more open and democratic society they stress insistence on transparency of process and the expansion of opportunities for civic participation. They explain:

“ Residents must see themselves as participants, and government must
welcome their involvement. Neither of these qualities is likely to be supported
by the political culture of the rural Big Island . . . .”
[Chapter “Local Government, Hawaii Style” page 230]

If we are to prevent this type of conduct from reoccurring, it is critical those who knowingly engaged in intentional violations of the Sunshine Law are subjected to appropriate penalties. And second, as suggested by Pratt and Smith we must think about ways to create more “public space” in our individual lives. As explained by Pratt and Smith:

The public spaces in the average person’s life – the time and energy available to share
concern outside of work and family – must be enlarged if Hawai’i’s future is to be made
of vibrant communities and involved citizens. Without such an expansion, these efforts
will be left to a circumscribed group of the financially successful and retired, or those
employed to lobby for particular interests, far too small a portion of the population to
meet a definition of community.”
[Chapter “Images of the Future of Paradise” pages 261-262]

The point here is that we need to insist on open government meetings that are accessible to a significant segment of the population. Today, given the challenges of merely surviving economically, it is difficult for most everyone to attend the Council’s meetings or even to catch one of the several rebroadcasts of the meeting on pubic TV. One idea that has been suggested is to insist on live stream broadcasting of County Council meetings and its committee meetings. Doing so would allow for timely involvement by those who can not attend the meetings. Additionally the County website could provide “library links” to watch previous broadcasts. But frankly if we can’t prevent decision-making by way of “behind closed door” meetings, what’s the point of even having a “Sunshine Law”?

In moving forward, one must keep in mind that those in government who have been party to this status quo “good ‘ol boy” process are simply part of an established culture, and that eliminating this paternalistic mindscape of “we the elite powerbrokers know what’s best” is in essence a cultural revolution.

Whether or not we succeed at making these folks accountable for their actions is uncertain. But, no matter, an open government that encourages public participation should remain our goal. This goal is cogently stated in the Sunshine Law’s “Declaration of policy and intent”:

In a democracy, the people are vested with the ultimate
decision-making power. Governmental agencies exist to
aid the people in the formation and conduct of public policy.
Opening up the governmental processes to public scrutiny and
participation in the only viable and reasonable method of
protecting the public’s interest. Therefore, the legislature declares
that it is the policy of this State that the formation and conduct of
public policy – the discussions, deliberations, decisions, and
action of governmental agencies – shall be conducted as openly as
possible. “
HRS §92 “Public Agency Meetings and Records” Part 1 “Meetings”
subsection 92-1 “Declaration of policy and intent”