Category Archives: Sunshine

Legislature again considering bill to make consumer complaints secret

Rep. Isaac Choy is at it again, this time with a bill that would amend the state’s public records law to totally remove complaints about those holding state professional and vocational licenses from the public record.

Choy’s bill, HB 1565, is scheduled to be heard by the House Committee on Consumer Protection and Commerce on Monday afternoon, February 1, at 2 p.m.

State law currently provides that “record of complaints” about “an individual’s fitness to be granted or to retain a license” is a public record, “including all dispositions.”

Choy’s bill would simply delete this provision from the law, making all information about consumer complaints, including their existence, state secrets.

So what complaints are we talking about?

The state’s Professional and Vocational Licensing office lists the following categories of licensed professionals and activities.

Accountancy
Acupuncture
Barbering and Cosmetology
Boxing
Chiropractor
Contractor
Dentist and Dental Hygienist
Electrician and Plumber
Elevator Mechanic
Engineer, Architect, Surveyor and Landscape Architect
Massage Therapy
Medical and Osteopathy (MD, DO, EMT-Basic, EMT-Paramedic, Physician Assistant, and Podiatrist)
Motor Vehicle Industry
Motor Vehicle Repair
Naturopathic Medicine
Nursing
Optometry
Pest Control
Pharmacy and Pharmacist
Physical Therapy
Private Detective and Guard
Psychology
Real Estate
Speech Pathology and Audiology
Veterinary

Activity Desk
Athletic Trainers
Behavior Analysts
Cemetery and Pre-Need Funeral Authority
Collection Agency
Condominium Property Regimes
Dispensing Optician
Electrologist
Employment Agency
Hearing Aid Dealer and Fitter
Marriage and Family Therapist
Mental Health Counselor
Mixed Martial Arts Contests
Nurse Aide
Nursing Home Administrator
Occupational Therapist
Port Pilot
Real Estate Appraiser
Respiratory Therapist
Social Worker
Subdivision
Time Share
Travel Agency
Uniform Athlete Agents

You get the idea. Complaints filed against licensees provide an early warning to consumers of possible problems, and are one of the most important types of information used to protect consumers.

These are people who affect many different parts of our lives. Avoiding the occasional “bad apple” is often very important to individual consumers. And tracking how complaints are handled gives us a chance to evaluate how well the government agencies are going their jobs of protecting the public.

Losing access to such information would mark a return to the dark ages, back when consumers had no rights.

Choy has been on this secrecy kick for years, and has repeatedly sought to block the public from information about complaints filed against the service providers we rely on.

I wrote about Choy’s role in passage of a similar (but less sweeping) bill back in 2010 (“Bill to limit consumer’s rights makes last-minute stealth move“).

Here’s what I wrote at that time. The 2010 bill would only have allowed the public to know about a complaint if the complaint were finally upheld by state regulators. Choy’s current bill would block disclosure of any and all information about consumer complaints, even if multiple complaints were found to be valid.

Under current law, information concerning “an individual’s fitness to be granted or to retain a license” is considered private and confidential, except for records of complaints resulting in disciplinary action, and the “record of complaints including all dispositions.”

This bill, in its current form, would strip the “record of complaints” from the public record.

The problem here is that complaints take months, sometimes years to be investigated, so someone can rack up a long list of complaints before the first disciplinary action is finally taken. And a short list of complaints that result in actual disciplinary action may mask a much longer list of outstanding consumer complaints. Under the terms of this bill, the public would be left to fend for themselves without access to this key bit of consumer background.

Testimony on HB1565 can be submitted online. The system requires you to register and create an account in order to submit online testimony. Click here for the instructions for this simple process.

Assessing the city’s “open government” initiative

“Open data” is a great idea for state and local governments, providing a way for the public to easily access the mountains of data produced by governments at all levels. If it works, it provides ways to check what the city and state are actually doing and to hold elected officials accountable.

Elected officials have given lots of lip service to the idea over several years.

I wondered about the status of Hawaii’s open data initiatives, and decided to take a quick look at the city’s efforts. I’ll check on the state’s progress at another time.

In November 2013, the City Council passed Bill 53 (2013) regarding open data. It summarized the background of the open data movement.

The Council further finds that on June 26, 2012, the Governor issued an Executive Directive to all state department heads announcing the Open Data Initiative. On August 10, 2012, then-candidate and current Mayor Kirk Caldwell, signed an Open Data Pledge. On October 4, 2012, State Chief data officer Sanjeev Bhagowalia unveiled the State’s Twelve Year IT Transformation Plan, which included as one of its top priorities the establishment of a State open data portal at https://data.hawaii.gov. The City followed suit and created https://data.honolulu.qov. These actions enabled public facing websites to facilitate the sharing of master data sets. On July 3, 2013, the Governor signed into law Act 263, which relates to open data. This new law requires state executive branch departments to make electronic data sets available to the public, absolves the State from liability for certain deficiencies or incomplete data, and requires the Chief data officer to develop policies and procedures to implement the open data initiative.

Finally, the Council finds that an open data policy has been shown to drive increased government efficiency and civic engagement, leading to social and economic benefits as a result of innovative citizen interaction with government. Social and economic benefits include, but are not limited to, empowering citizens through the democratization of information and fostering citizen participation in city government projects, supporting early stage entrepreneurship, encouraging positive environments that contribute to workforce development and job creation, and fostering a positive business environment and public-private partnerships.

Sounds good, doesn’t it?

The bill provides:

Each agency shall use reasonable efforts to make appropriate and existing electronic data sets maintained by the agency electronically available at no cost to the public through the city’s open data portal at data.honolulu.gov or its successor website designated by the city’s director of information technology….

As with lots of great sounding measures, there were several caveats. This seems to be the main one.

Nothing in this chapter shall require agencies to create new electronic data sets or to make data sets available upon demand…

I’ve just started to spot check what’s actually available at data.honolulu.gov. You can click on the link for a full catalog of available data. Since the list of available data sets is so large, dig in and share your observations with the rest of us.

Here’s my initial take.

Some of these data sources actually deliver on the promise. For example, the database of traffic incidents spans a period from 2012 through the present. That makes it possible to go back and spot problem areas, spots where more incidents are reported, etc.

Data on abandoned vehicles also covers a broad time period from 2007 to just the last couple of days.

But the database of “Crime Incidents” is described as “an active feed from the Honolulu Police Department.” But the last entries appear to be from August 22, 2015, where the data abruptly stops. So it’s almost complete, but somewhere along the line the ball was dropped.

Other data are much more limited. The Honolulu 311 reports are online. These are complaints or requests for service submitted using the Honolulu311 mobile app. When it was launched, this service got positive press.

But for some unknown reason, the online data only contain items submitted in the past month. That leaves no way to track the city’s performance over time, to identify problem areas, or the most frequent types of problems.

Some data looked interesting, but the links didn’t work, at least when I was checking. One promises to identify all state owned land. It provided an external link, which returned only an error message. A list of city owned properties couldn’t be opened without a county id and password.

Some databases are simple snapshots in time. For example, “Hanauma Bay Revenues FY14 2013-12-31.” Separate databases report revenues and expenditures at Hanauma over several fiscal years. That would at least make it possible to compile a time series to track changes or trends. Same with city budgets, reported in discrete files by year.

There’s a useful link for shoreline access points, which opens a map of Oahu with public access points shown as red dots. Click on one of them and you get a description of it.

Here’s one that might yield something interesting. It is apparently a list of the top ten internet sites accessed from each city department, but only covered the single month of Dec 2012. An updated list over time would certainly be of public interest!

In any case, there are hundreds of listed sources of data, but the list appears to contain lots of duplicates. Much of the data should be useful, others not so much.

But there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to what’s in this collection of data, nor any sense that city departments are making progress in opening large datasets to the public.

I’ve seen some mainland jurisdictions provide access to the city’s checkbook, allowing micro-level analysis of departmental spending.

I searched for the term “contracts.” The only items found were city budgets. A search for “procurement” produced nothing. Of course, there are separate city systems for procurement matters, and I know lists of personal service contracts are provided regularly to the city council. But accessing these in the form of a database would make analysis of the lists easier and more likely for someone to undertake.

The other thing I notice is that few people make any use of these data. Only a handful of the thousand or so slices of city data have been accessed ore than a few hundred times since 2012. These seem to have been the most heavily used.

But even here there are problems.

Anyway, here are the most used databases, using the city’s numbers.

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Improving laws on campaign and lobbyist disclosure

There are two new reports from the National Institute on Money in State Politics that assess how well California does in regulating campaign spending and lobbying disclosures.

Here’s how they describe the two reports.

California state and local governments have instituted many effective disclosure policies when it comes to money in politics. But two new reports that look at the accessibility, completeness, and timeliness of providing that information to the general public find that California state and local governments have room for improvement.

In ”Best Practices for Local Campaign Finance Disclosure in California,” we looked at the rules and their actual implementation in five cities and two counties in California. Overall, it appears that local governments are doing well but can do more to expand transparency when it comes to money in politics.

In ”Improving Disclosure & Transparency: A Review of California’s Political Disclosure System,” we reviewed California’s political disclosure system for campaign finances and lobbying expenses. As with the local governments, we found that California has thorough political campaign disclosure laws. However, the systems that are used to share that information with the public can be enhanced, and the report identifies practices in other states that might help.

I found the section on lobbying disclosure laws, part of the second report, very interesting. It first reviews California’s laws regulating lobbying and requiring public disclosure of spending. In many respects, California’s definition of lobbying and what it requires to be made public is much better than Hawaii’s lobbyist law, but the report goes further by suggesting additional improvements. It would be great to see a bill drafted to bring Hawaii’s law up to the recommended California standard, and then see how Hawaii’s lawmakers would respond.

In any case, these are both excellent reports that suggest what a “state of the art” system for campaign and lobbying disclosures would look like.

Tap into these resources about money and politics

The National Institute on Money in State Politics is inviting people to take part in a 12-minute “webinar” examining the sources of “donations to ballot measures including death penalty and victims.” More than $81 million has gone into supporting or opposing criminal justice-related ballot issues, according to the Institute’s invitation.

The webinar is scheduled for noon Tuesday, Eastern time, or 7 a.m. here in Hawaii.

To learn more about the money behind the measures, put on your headset and follow along on your computer at noon ET on Tuesday, Jan. 5, during our 12-minute webinar ”Criminal Justice for All: Death Penalty and Other Related Ballot Measures.”

Send us an email and we’ll sign you up. As always, we will personally answer your questions at the end of the webinar.

There are also a couple of other upcoming webinar topics:

Jan. 21 – Double Barreled: Pro- and Anti-Gun Control Contributions

Feb. 2 – Smoking Hot Donations from the Tobacco Industry

Send an email indicating your interest in any of these (using the link above) and they’ll send the instructions.

You can also rummage around in their archive of previously broadcast webinars, which include some “how to” sessions on using their online database of campaign contributions, and topics such as prison privatization, contributions from the oil and gas industry, and money going into marijuana ballot issues.

You can get the full list of previous webinars here.

You might also want to check out their list of useful online resources on money & politics.

Another visit to Kaaawa (photo)

Kaaawa, HawaiiWe spent the night with friends in Kaaawa again, and started today with a walk on our former beach out in Kaaawa. We did manage to visit with a number of our former daily dogs, as well as some of their people. We was a pleasure, as always.

There is still something very special about Kaaawa, that’s for sure.

And we did walk past our former house. Renovations are still underway there, it seems. We’re looking forward to seeing what the new owners are doing.

But the upshot is that I won’t have much of a blog post for today, since I’m getting such a late start at the computer. But I did want to share this photo, taken just as the sun rose.

Another gorgeous day.

And if you have access to Civil Beat, do check out my column about the UH Cancer Center and its former director. I’ve been getting a lot of feedback already. See “Ian Lind: Has UH Adequately Addressed Cancer Center’s Sticky Issues? Former director Michele Carbone was often an expert defense witness in asbestos cases and sought UH grants from a frequently sued company. Conflict of interest?

I’ll have more on this issue over the next couple of days.