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Ian Lind • Online daily from Kaaawa, Hawaii

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State Ethics ruling triggers two-pronged HSTA legal action

March 25th, 2015 · 3 Comments

I recommend my column at Civil Beat today (“Hawaii Monitor: Ethics Commission Ruling Draws Teachers’ Union Lawsuit“).

There’s a story behind the story.

It started with the regular monthly meeting of the State Ethics Commission a week ago. I’ve been trying to attend the commission’s meetings when possible, because the agency has been reshaping the ethics map for public officials and there’s a lot of tension as a result. That adds up, more often than not, in potential stories.

There were quite a few things on the agenda, from a report on pending legislation to a discussion of the financial disclosures of those boards and commissions members among those newly subject to public disclosure. That seemed to have the most potential.

But tucked away as an item included in the executive director’s report was this: “Hawaii State Teachers Association Campaign Flyers.”

That was it. No explanation or background.

When the commission executive director, Les Kondo, reached this item on the agenda, he explained that a phone call from a Department of Education administrator on Maui had triggered a review of the longstanding practice of allowing teachers who are candidates in the HSTA election to distribute their campaign materials through school mailboxes.

And after this review, Kondo and the commission staff informed the DOE, the union, and the teacher involved, that it they now consider use of mailboxes by individual teacher-candidates to be “inappropriate.”

Kondo said the staff believe the practice violates the “fair treatment” provision of the state ethics law, which specifically prohibits “using state time, equipment or other facilities for private business purposes.”

Not surprisingly, the HSTA had asked Kondo to hold off on his ruling until after the current election ends next month. He declined.

And because it was too late to add the matter to the agenda for a thorough commission discussion and independent review, the commission had little choice but to let the staff interpretation stand.

Here’s where it got interesting.

Kondo told the commission that he had been contacted just the day before by former Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa on behalf of HSTA. It was Hanabusa who suggested deferring the new ruling prohibiting use of school mailboxes for campaigning by teachers. And, according to Kondo, Hanabusa said the union had also retained the law firm of Alston Hunt Floyd and Ing to litigate, if necessary.

Over the next few days I watched for any news about this issue. Nothing appeared. So yesterday I decided to write about the new commission ruling, which overturns 42 years of past practice. That alone seems to make it of public interest.

When I got up in the morning, I reviewed my notes of the commission meeting, listened to my recording of that portion of the commission meeting, and looked at a 2007 Hawaii Supreme Court case which Kondo had referred to.

Then I started making calls. No one was available. I called HSTA. I left messages for the union’s communications person and for the acting executive director. I also followed with an email. I called the ethics commission, discovered that Kondo is out of the office for the week, and left a message for associate director. I called the Alston law firm, explained why I was calling, and was told I would be contacted later. I left a telephone message and sent an email to Hanabusa. The hours passed, none of the calls were returned, and I used the time to read more about the “fair treatment” provision, look up info on the HSTA election, and to think through how I would explain the commission’s new hard line on union campaigning.

Then I thought I would try to figure out who had raised the issue. Kondo said the phone call to the commission came from Maui, and involved a teacher, referred to as “he”. So I was looking for a male teacher at a Maui school.

Then after some searching, I found a list of candidates for the top HSTA offices. The only Maui person on the list was Justin Hughey, a candidate for vice-president.

I spent too many minutes looking for a telephone number. Finally I turned to social media, found Hughey on Facebook, and sent him a message. Sometime later my computer chimed to let me know he had responded.

Unfortunately, from my perspective, Hughey declined to comment on the situation. However, in the process of doing so, I was left with the impression that he was declining to comment on the lawsuit. And at that point I didn’t know there was a lawsuit! Aha. The process was leading to some real news.

With that information, I got visited the state Judiciary’s website, checked the court records, and found that the union had gone to court on Monday with an emergency motion for a TRO to block enforcement of the new ethics ruling.

Unfortunately, I was not in town and so could not go over to the court and retrieve a copy of the HSTA motion. That was frustrating.

About that time, I got an email message from a public relations firm on behalf of HSTA. They said Hanabusa had been tasked with following-up with me. Excellent. I started writing, using the information already available, relying on the discussion that had taken place during the commission meeting for the substance. The column started taking shape.

Then Hanabusa called and the story developed further. She explained that while the Alston law firm is pursing a TRO, she has filed a prohibited practice complaint with the Hawaii Labor Relations Board, arguing that the DOE refusal to allow teachers access to school mailboxes is a violation of their collective bargaining agreement as well as state law.

That bit of info turned my column into a breaking news story, which doesn’t happen all that often.

It took a bit of rewriting to incorporate the new information and Hanabusa’s perspective. But I was done in time for wine o’clock.

It just goes to show how a bit of digging can sometimes turn up unexpected news.

If you have access to CB, directly or through a friend, check it out.

 

→ 3 CommentsTags: Court · Education · Ethics · Labor · Media

Sunshine Law bills still moving in the legislature

March 24th, 2015 · 4 Comments

Here’s a list of bills relating to Hawaii’s Sunshine Law that are still alive in this session. These bills are drawn from a longer list of sunshine bills, both those that have died and those that successfully crossed over, which were identified by the Office of Information Practices. I’ve marked those which OIP reports supporting.

The links take you to status page for each bill, where you will find links to testimony (if any), as well as committee reports, which are important in recording the intent behind each version of the bill.

HB 461 / SB 472, SD 1 (Support) – Relating to the Office of Information Practices. Transfers OIP to the Department of Accounting and General Services for administrative purposes only.  OIP supports the bill.

HB 287, HD 1 (Support) – Relating to the Uniform Information Practices Act.  Amends HRS § 92F-14 to add, as an example of a significant privacy interest that may be protected, information whose disclosure would create a substantial and demonstrable risk of physical harm to an individual.  OIP opposed the original bill, which had applied a subjective standard based on “harm, embarrassment, inconvenience, or unfairness” to an individual, and now supports the amendments made in the HD 1.

SB 475, SD 1 (Support) – Relating to Open Government.  Allows the electronic posting of meeting notices under the Sunshine Law, as well as e-mail notice to persons on a board’s mailing list.  As OIP’s amendment was included in the SD 1, we support the bill, except for its intentionally defective date.

SB 465, SD 1 – Relating to Government Records.  Like HB 150, this bill allows board members to transmit public records to other board members.  The SD 1 included OIP’s suggestion to limit the content of transmittal messages in order to prevent serial communications among board members, but it did not narrow the bill to apply only to those specified in HRS Sec. 92F-12(a).

SB 652, SD 1 – Relating to Public Agency Meetings.  Requires boards to report any final action taken during an executive session, providing that the disclosure is not inconsistent with the purpose of convening the closed meeting.  OIP supported the original bill, but the SD 1 has amended it to also require disclosure of the “discussions” during an executive session.

→ 4 CommentsTags: Legislature · Politics · Sunshine

Reducing a lifetime’s stash of stuff

March 23rd, 2015 · 9 Comments

The Seattle Times’ Pacific NW Magazine captured the problem of what George Carlin referred to as our “stuff” in a story a few days ago (“Too much stuff: We collect it all our lives, and then what?“).

These paragraphs seemed to be describing my own situation exactly, as I’m still not finished sorting the stuff my parents collected over their long lives.

For many of us — especially baby boomers — stuff has become a burden too heavy to carry alone. Parents die or become ill, and suddenly there’s a whole other household of stuff to deal with. China, books, shoes, papers, old television consoles, mink coats and dusty felt hats from the Disneyland trip 40 years ago.

So we hire junk removal companies to clear out basements and attics. We hold garage sales and engage liquidators to sell off what they can. We rent dumpsters and haul our stuff to charities to sell for a good cause, creating an endless churn of stuff looking for new homes until we run out of options and simply throw it away.

I’ve thrown mountains of stuff away, disposed of some via Freecycle, dropped boxes of oddities with our friends at Antique Alley, sent carloads off to Goodwill, contributed to the well-stocked shelves at Savers, sent several boxes of papers to be archived at the University of Hawaii’s Hamilton Library, and I’m dreading having to return to the boxes of things that survived the first cut in order to further whittle down what’s being saved.

The “things” aren’t the hard part. It’s the information, correspondence, old clipping files, research notes, court records, land deeds, photos, household records, and other memorabilia that tell the story of other times and places. I have real trouble consigning these to the land fill.

As the article says, somethings our stuff isn’t just “stuff.”

Turns out that guilt and sentimentality — powerful feelings attached to the things we own — are reasons we hang onto stuff.

How do you get rid of Grandpa’s lucky football hat or the cranberry-colored glass dish your great-grandmother used to rest her powder-puff? How do you dispose of a library your mother spent a lifetime building, or discard the hulking kitchen table from your childhood home, even though it doesn’t fit in your apartment? The vintage toy collection inspires happy memories of childhood. The carved coconut reminds us of our honeymoon in Hawaii.

And that’s why the process of sorting and deciding is mentally exhausting. I do it for a few hours and I feel wrung out.

In any case, it’s a good, thought-provoking article. Worth a read on this Monday morning.

→ 9 CommentsTags: Consumer issues · General · History

In the shadow of the Megadrought

March 22nd, 2015 · 21 Comments

An article from Slate.com caught my eye this week: “California’s Next Megadrought Has Already Begun.”

Overall, it’s a pretty grim read.

California’s cities have more than enough water to withstand the current drought and then some. They simply don’t use that much. Not true for agriculture, which uses 80 percent of California’s water—10 percent of that just on almonds. Though it’s still a national powerhouse, fed increasingly by fast-depleting groundwater supplies, the state’s agriculture industry has likely begun a long-term decline due mostly to simple math. Abnormally dry conditions have dominated in 11 of the last 15 years, and the cuts have to come from somewhere. Agriculture is the elephant in the ever-shrinking room of California water.

But isn’t agriculture also a political and economic powerhouse in California? If ag goes into a major decline as a result of continued drought, what’s going to happen to the state’s already shaky economy? Will corporate agriculture begin shifting assets to areas with more stable water supplies? There will be a real estate ripple through the central valley, and more. It’s hard to see where this ends unless it’s several years of above average rainfall, something not in the cards right now.

And other areas of the Southwest? Are cities like Phoenix living on borrowed time?

California has now imposed mandatory restrictions on watering lawns. The Sacramento Bee reports:

California regulators on Tuesday ordered every water agency in the state to restrict how often customers can water their landscaping, an unprecedented move that marks another milestone in the severe and ongoing drought.

The decision was adopted unanimously by the State Water Resources Control Board and will take effect in about 45 days. Officials at the water board said it is the first time any state in the nation has imposed an emergency water conservation requirement on every local water agency within its borders.

A Los Angeles Times editorial calls it “just a taste of what’s to come.”

A U-T San Diego editorial cites several types of available policy responses, including pricing strategies to reduce water use, desalination, purification and recycling, and controlling waste.

To what extent is Hawaii looking forward to the potential for an extended drought here? Climate change may lead to a decline in annual rainfall. As all of these California stories say, it’s way too late to address the water issues when you’re in the middle of an extended drought. The planning, and the investment, really needs to start long before the rain stops.

We lose water every day from leaks resulting from our aging infrastructure. We fail to capture what are likely large amounts of runoff that goes to the ocean instead of being saved and purified. Has Hawaii County altered its policies in light of their experience with drought over the past several years? Maybe folks from there and Maui can share their experience.

It’s all sounding like an apocalyptic science fiction yarn as modern society hits the revenge of the desert.

→ 21 CommentsTags: Economics · environment · Politics

When the Navy disclosed its history of nuclear weapon accidents

March 21st, 2015 · 3 Comments

I’m trying to reduce a file cabinet of old documents to a box or two, a bunch of scans, and a couple of bags of trash. It isn’t easy. I keep finding notes that remind me of “the story behind the story” told in published articles.

Back in the late 1970s, while I was on the staff of the American Friends Service Committee, my research in government documents turned up footnotes citing three apparently unclassified reports on previous accidents involving the U.S. Navy’s nuclear weapons arsenal. So at the beginning of 1979, I filed a freedom of information request for copies of the reports. It was turned down immediately, and I filed an administrative appeal, which was also rejected.

On July 3, 1980, a federal lawsuit was filed against the Navy to force release of the unclassified portions of the reports, with myself and the AFSC as plaintiffs. I did much of the document research, and a friend handled the legal work.

It took five frustrating years for the case to finally be resolved. The Navy grudgingly disclosed 125 pages of material from the reports, including a breakdown of the number of accidents, along with the level of seriousness, during the period from 1965-1977.

The New York Times ran a story triggered by a press release which I wrote and was distributed out of AFSC’s national office, as did dozens of other newspapers across the country.

The NY Times reported:

The Navy made public the numbers on nuclear accidents and incidents in response to queries based on a press release issued by the American Friends Service Committee, which is engaged in a lawsuit against the Navy in Hawaii in an effort to get information on nuclear accidents.

In the course of the suit in Federal District Court, the committee obtained Navy reports on nuclear accidents and incidents from 1965 through 1977. A query to the Navy produced the more recent figures.

In a statement, Ian Lind, director of the Quaker organization’s office in Honolulu, said, ”The documents reveal that the Navy’s nuclear accident record is far more extensive than the public had previously been led to believe and is of immediate concern, especially to those living near nuclear installations.”

There was one error in the story. At that time, I was the “former” director of AFSC’s Hawaii office.

What I didn’t recall is that the Navy was ordered to pay $15,682.50 in legal fees. A federal judge found that we had “substantially prevailed,” that the information disclosed was of significant public interest.

In a ruling on the issue of awarding legal fees, the court noted:

Although only 125 of 855 pages were released the information obtained was significant. The specific weapons and specific causes of the accidents were redacted. However, the frequency of accidents the general type of accident, and the overall cause (human error, mechanical failure, act of God) were released in summary form. There was extensive news media coverage of the information released. More than 60 newspapers across the country carried the story. Congressman Ted Weiss sent plaintiffs a personal letter expressing appreciation for the “invaluable contribution” the information made by informing both Congress and the public.

Here are a few historical tidbits.

NAVY CITES 2 ACCIDENTS WITH NUCLEAR ARMS“, NY Times, January 16, 1986. I think the link will only work if you have a NY Times subscription.

According to the byline, it was a “special to the New York Times” by Richard Halloran. I hadn’t remembered that Halloran had written this piece for the Times. Fifteen years later, we crossed paths again, media-wise. Check the entries for March 26 and 27, 2001, which can be found here.

Federal Court opinion regarding legal fees, January 20, 1987.

Order granting in part and denying in part motion for final disposition,” June 11, 1986

→ 3 CommentsTags: History · Media · Politics · Sunshine · War & Peace