Category Archives: Sunshine

How does Hawaii rank on disclosure of consumer complaints?

How does Hawaii rate when it comes to disclosing consumer complaints?

That was the question behind a 50-state investigation by (

The organization filed public record requests in each state for records of consumer complaints against companies they are researching, using each state’s public records law.

We’re accustomed to Hawaii getting low scores on tests like this, but be prepared to be surprised.

The group rated Hawaii as one of three “Gold Star states,” the three most open states in the country, along with New Hampshire and Oregon. Each of the top ranked states maintains a searchable online database of consumer complaints.

In Hawaii, you can search separate databases of complaints filed with the Office of Consumer Protection or the Regulated Industries Complaints Office.

According to

Consumers who take the time to file a complaint with state officials can provide valuable information on how a business operates in practice. While consumers may turn to online reviews and ratings sites to evaluate a business, those sources can be murky. Fake reviews are a troublesome issue and some businesses are trying to tamp down negative reviews with terms and conditions that impose gag orders and fines. Thus, complaints filed with state officials become an important resource for consumers. States that lock complaints behind closed doors are limiting access to useful information about experiences fellow consumers have had with a company.

Equally important is the ability to keep government officials accountable. States that keep consumer records from the public are severely limiting the public’s ability to monitor whether government officials are doing enough to protect them from unscrupulous enterprises by taking action against a company.

The group compiled a list of how and where to go for information, or to file a consumer complaint, in each state. Click here to see the Hawaii listing.

UH Hilo student senate tramples open meeting requirements

Two students reporters representing The Student Union, a registered independent student organization at the University of Hawaii at Hilo, were threatened with arrest for attending a public meeting of the campus student government organization last week.

The two reporters were told they could not enter the October 30 public meeting of the UH Hilo Student Association, the student senate, without showing their student identification, and would not be allowed to record the meeting.

Signs were posted which announced both requirements, despite an earlier acknowledgement by UH officials that recording of public meetings must be allowed.

When the reporters persisted, campus security was called. The two did open the unlocked door and enter the meeting, where they were again told they would have to leave.

The incident was described in a press release from The Student Union organization distributed by email this week.

The students also distributed a one-page handout which listed relevant laws and UH policies supporting their right to attend and to record the meeting.

Surprisingly, the list did not include the state’s sunshine law, which provides for open meetings of public agencies.

I originally noted here that the sunshine law applies to the student government. That was my recollection from a controversy during the 1970s over the Manoa student senate’s control over a share of the proceeds from sale of the old Honolulu Stadium in Moiliili. However, I’ve learned that a 1985 legal opinion by the attorney general, issued prior to the creation of the Office of Information Practices, ruled the opposite.

I have not yet obtained a copy of that opinion to review.

The sunshine law requires public meetings to be open to the public and, if applicable to UH, would not appear to allow attendance to be restricted only to UH students, faculty, and administrators. And a requirement to produce identification as a condition of entering a public meeting would also appear to be contrary to the sunshine law’s open meeting requirements.

In addition, the law specifically allows audio recordings of public meetings, although it is silent on video recording. However, the law was passed before small devices, like smartphones, which can record both audio and video became widely available. And the law is specifically required to be interpreted broadly in favor of open meetings. For this reason, it seems likely that non disruptive video recording using small handheld devices would found to be consistent with the intent of the law.

Video taken while they were in the meeting showed that the it was already being taped, apparently as part of the official record.

Previous opinions of the Office of Information Practices have held that audio recordings maintained by government agencies are public records. To the extent that those recordings are held by university employees, it would seem that they would be considered public records, whether or not the open meeting requirements apply.

Here’s a summary of OIP’s Opinion 92-13:

The State Office of Veterans Services (OVS) must disclose the audio tape recording of a public meeting held by the State Commission on Memorials for Veterans of the Korean and Vietnam Conflicts (Commission). The OIP determined that the audio tape recording of the Commission’s public meeting is a “government record” under the UIPA and that none of the exceptions to required disclosure applies to this government record. Also, section 92F-12(a)(16), Hawaii Revised Statutes, expressly requires an agency to make available for public inspection and copying “[i]nformation contained in or compiled from a transcript . . . of a proceeding open to the public.” Therefore, upon receiving a request for the disclosure of the audio tape recording of the Commission’s meeting, the OVS cannot fulfill its obligations by merely disclosing the written meeting minutes.

And Opinion 97-06:

The Department of Health’s (“DOH”) audio cassette recordings of its public meetings are government records that are public under the UIPA. The DOH must provide another audio cassette copy rather than a written transcript of the recordings upon receiving a request for a cassette copy.

In breaking news, The Student Union’s Facebook page reported today that the Student Association’s advisor has “stepped down” and that “all future UHHSA meetings cancelled until new adviser found.”

It seems this is a story with legs.

Stay tuned!

Is more trouble brewing at the Honolulu Ethics Commission?

The Honolulu Ethics Commission has set a previously unscheduled meeting for next Tuesday, November 3, at 5:30 p.m. The agenda was filed late Wednesday afternoon, and distributed via email on Thursday.

Exactly why this special meeting is being held isn’t at all clear. The commission’s regular October meeting was held just a week ago, on October 21, and the next regular monthly meeting on November 18 has been on the commission’s calendar for months.

It appears next week’s special meeting must have been triggered by recent unspecified events.

There are several unusual aspects to the announcement. First, the meeting is being held in the late afternoon, whereas regular commission meetings have started at 11:30 a.m.

Second, two meeting places are listed on the agenda. The first is the commission office, the second a home in Kula, Maui. That property is owned by attorney and commission member Michael Lilly, so it appears he will be participating electronically via speaker phone.

The time change and teleconferencing indicates to me that a special effort is being made to have all members present.

The meeting has a single agenda item, to be held in a closed executive session.


The Commission anticipates convening an executive session, pursuant to Hawaii Revised Statutes, Section 92-5(a) (4), to consult with the Commission’s attorney on questions and issues pertaining to the Commission’s powers, duties, privileges, immunities and liabilities related to personnel and management matters. [emphasis added]

In context of recent events, this is disquieting.

The commission recently dismissed all charges in a case brought against three city council members for accepting illegal gifts from lobbyists. The reasons for the dismissals were not publicly disclosed.

These charges raised questions of whether a series of rail-related council votes would be considered valid if a majority of council members were later found to have improperly accepted gifts from lobbyists that weren’t publicly disclosed as potential conflicts. Although it seems unlikely that the rail project could have been stopped even if these votes were declared to be legally void, just the possibility posed political challenges for Mayor Kirk Caldwell.

The three council members were ably represented by former congresswoman and attorney, Colleen Hanabusa, recently appointed to the board of directors of the agency that manages the rail project.

Earlier, Caldwell’s recent appointees to the commission led the charge to institute a restrictive media policy that would have made it very difficult for the commission’s professional staff to communicate with the news media and the public.

And the mayor’s administration has been and remains at odds with the commission, and has been seen as repeatedly obstructing the commission’s investigative efforts.

So what’s really the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting? It seems reasonable to assume it concerns the commission’s executive director and chief legal counsel, Chuck Totto, unless the commission is going to micromanage things farther down through the staff ranks.

And given the context of events of the past six months, it’s worrisome.

Check out the Ohio Coalition for Open Government

Advocates of transparency and openness in government might want to check out the Ohio Coalition for Open Government, which provides an example how to press for more sunshine.

The group’s website provides this description:

The Ohio Coalition for Open Government (OCOG) is a tax-exempt 501 (c)(3) corporation established by the Ohio Newspapers Foundation in June 1992. The Coalition is operated for charitable and educational purposes by conducting and supporting activities to benefit those who seek compliance with public access laws. It is also affiliated with a national network of similar state coalitions.

The Coalition serves as a clearinghouse for media and citizen grievances that involve open meetings and open records, and offers guidance to reporters in local government situations. The activities of the Coalition include monitoring government officials for compliance, filing “amicus” briefs in lawsuits, litigation and public education.

The OCOG board includes media representatives, attorneys, and a representative from Common Cause.

The group recently analyzed decisions by the Ohio Supreme Court in open government cases over the past five years. In 32 cases analyzed, after excluding routine prisoner appeals and eight cases that had mixed results, the justice sided with restricting or denying access in 62.5% of the cases, and in favor of open government in 37.5%.

The spreadsheet summarizing each of the cases makes for interesting reading, as does the organization’s newsletter, the “Open Government Report,” which is published twice a year (the most recent issue ran 20 pages).

It obviously takes a lot of work to keep this kind of coalition going. Honolulu once supported an active Sunshine Law Coalition, but I’m afraid it faded away decades ago.

According to the League of Women Voters of Honolulu, in 1980 the coalition included the Media Council, Honolulu Journalists Assn., The Hawaii Press Club, Common Cause, Kokua Council for Senior Citizens, Prof. John Luter of UH Journalism Dept., Marilyn Bornhorst, the Hawaii Ctte for Freedom of the Press, and the League of Women Voters.

Suggestions sought on handling of broad freedom information requests

I received an interesting question/comment from a friend at UH regarding Freedom of Information Act requests.

My friend wrote:

UH is starting to see a number of really broad-based FOIA requests (“send us all emails and invoices regarding x”, where x is a broad subject. This seems to be evolving into a weapon rather than a real search for information. Similar things happened to Bill Cronon at Wisconsin, to climate change scientists, and apparently it is getting common in the GMO wars. For a principal investigator on grants, this means spending hours going through emails to sort out the relevant ones and then redacting (after first learning what must be redacted), while still doing one’s day job.

The OIP offers suggestions on how to deal with such broad requests and this is helpful, perhaps more so if one is a large government agency.

I am wondering if you have seen laws elsewhere that limit such broad shot gun approaches while still honoring the intent of openness? If so, might there be fixes for Hawaii law (or am I just overlooking them?).

A report published earlier this year laid out the same set of issues in some detail (“Freedom to Bully
How Laws Intended to Free Information Are Used to Harass Researchers

The report cites a number of examples across many fields of study.

Abuse of open records requests has affected researchers in a broad spectrum of fields:

Climate scientists. In perhaps the most notorious case of open records abuse, the American Tradition Institute (ATI) used a Virginia FOIA request as part of a campaign of harassment against climate scientist Michael Mann, complementing Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s attacks on the university. Climate scientists have also been the target of open records harassment across the United States as well as the United Kingdom and Australia, where the volume of requests amounted to a “denial of service” attack on the government’s Department of Climate Change. (Scientists who support the climate consensus have not been the sole targets: In 2009, Greenpeace used an open records request against contrarian scientists Pat Michaels and Fred Singer.)

Tobacco researchers. The tobacco industry was a pioneer in the abusive use of open records requests, targeting Georgia Medical College professor Paul Fischer in the 1990s for his research on the impact of Camel marketing campaigns on children. Researchers in California, Massachusetts, and more recently Scotland have been targeted for similar research over the years.

Historians. In 2011, the Wisconsin Republican Party sought emails from University of Wisconsin history professor William Cronon in response to his writings on the state’s caustic conversation around collective bargaining rights. Labor studies professors from three Michigan universities were also targeted around the same time.

Environmental chemist Deborah Swackhamer of the University of Minnesota, doing research in the 1990s on concentrations of a toxic chemical in the Great Lakes, was saddled with “the largest open records request ever made in Minnesota” in an apparent effort to shut the research down.

Occupational health scientist Michael Hendryx, who had investigated connections between mountaintop removal and adverse health effects while at West Virginia University, found himself on the receiving end of multiple open records requests from the Highland Mining Co. starting in 2012.

Epidemiologist Steve Wing of the University of North Carolina roused the ire of the North Carolina pork industry in the 1990s with his studies of the disproportionately harmful impacts of hog farms on low-income communities of color.

Researchers who use animal subjects have seen an “exponential increase” in open records requests from animal rights groups; such requests have become so pervasive that a group of scientific societies in fields that rely on animal research have published a guide for researchers. Similarly, an ecologist studying the impact of feral cats on wildlife in Hawaii became a target after his 2012 paper showed that euthanasia was more effective than trap-neuter-release programs.

A legal scholar of religious freedom at the University of Virginia, Douglas Laycock, was targeted by students when he supported Hobby Lobby in its suit seeking a religious exemption to the Affordable Care Act’s provision requiring employers to provide contraceptive coverage.

North Carolina poverty researcher Gene Nichol was the target of multiple open records requests from the Civitas Institute, a conservative think tank, which required him to review thousands of emails.

According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Federal FOIA allows requests that are too general or too broad to be rejected for vagueness.

FOIA requires that requested records be “reasonably describe[d].”1 As one court has said, a request meets this requirement if “the agency is able to determine precisely what records are being requested.”2 As another put it, the standard is met when it allows “a professional employee of the agency who [is] familiar with the subject area of the request to locate the record with a reasonable amount of effort.”3 If an agency tells you your records request was vague, you should attempt to narrow your request on appeal to make it relatively specific. You should bear in mind the standards courts have set for what is considered a “vague” request.

Rules of the Hawaii Office of Information Practices which implement the state’s Uniform Information Practices Act (UIPA) contain a similar requirement.

“A formal requisition shall be in written, electronic, or other physical form and shall cotnain the following information: …(2) A reasonable description of the requested record to enable agency personnel to locate it with reasonable effort. The description should include, if known, the record name, subject matter, date, location, and any other additional information that reasonably describes the requested record…”

On the other hand, I’m not familiar with OIP’s guidance to agencies for responding to broad, general requests for documents.

If you’ve had any experience with this type of request, please share your experience.