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Public access: Legislation in the works to allow more online participation in government

If a global pandemic can even have a silver lining, it’s this: Public access to state and local government meetings has never been easier, especially for neighbor island residents.

Where previous state board meetings and press conferences were primarily held in Honolulu and accessible only to those able to be there in person, emergency response to the coronavirus pandemic has sent many of the meetings online, where the public can participate without hopping on an airplane or battling freeway traffic.

The state Office of Information Practices and some state legislators want that to continue. Legislation is being proposed for the upcoming regular session allowing both virtual online public meetings and public testimony via videoconferencing. The Legislature comes back into session Jan. 20.

The Office of Information Practices, the state agency charged with overseeing the Sunshine Law and access to public records, is proposing legislation allowing Hawaii’s numerous boards and commissions, at the state and local level, to meet remotely via Zoom or other such technology, rather than having to gather in person. This would allow the public to testify and watch the meeting, even if they’re not at the same location as the meeting participants.

“By working together now to carefully craft a proposal with broad-based support, we hope the Legislature next year will readily pass good legislation that will provide many benefits to the people and our government,” OIP said in a statement Tuesday announcing a public comment period on its draft legislation.

The proposed legislation and its rationale can be found at oip.hawaii.gov/legislation.

“This bill would increase the ability of members of the public to attend and testify at Sunshine Law meetings because it would allow Sunshine Law meetings to be conducted over the internet, as they have been during the COVID-19 pandemic, as a permanent option rather than an emergency measure,” OIP said.

Public testimony on the proposed bill is being accepted through Nov. 13 by email to oip@hawaii.gov.

The ability to view some legislative committee hearings and floor sessions has been available for years through webcasts and media on demand. But the system doesn’t allow for the public to testify, and only select hearings and floor sessions are available.

State Rep. David Tarnas, a Democrat representing North Kona, North Kohala and South Kohala, has been trying to change that. His bill, HB 1153, would have established a remote legislative access program, requiring each house of the Legislature to establish, by rule, procedures for the public to present oral testimony at legislative committee hearings through remote technology.

Some version of the bill made it through both houses of the Legislature, but it ended up being set aside when the coronavirus pandemic took precedence over other work. Tarnas said he plans to submit new legislation, but he’s hoping legislation coming froward from Gov. David Ige’s administration will accomplish the job.

“While neighbor island legislators been advocating for remote testimony for years, it took the COVID-19 crisis to make it a statewide priority,” Tarnas said. “Now we have to seize the opportunity and set up systems that would be able to accommodate the public.”

Tarnas said the state will need to greatly increase broadband capacity at the state Capitol to make live public committee testimony a reality because so many committee hearings are happening simultaneously.

“Like any household, we’re all testing the limits of our internet broadband and at the Capitol, we’re definitely testing our limits,” he said.
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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