Hawaii's problem with open record requests has extended to false missile alert

Hawaii's problem with open record requests has extended to false missile alert
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By now, almost the whole world has heard about how an unnamed civil service employee in Hawaii sent out an alert to residents and visitors that the state was under imminent attack by a ballistic missile.

Fortunately, it wasn’t true, and it took state officials about 38 minutes to publicly admit it — eight minutes longer than a bright teenager with a Twitter account who had already reassured the public that it was a mistake.

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Worse, international political tensions put this snafu in the international spotlight, and there was much squirming going on in state’s governor’s office and at the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (Hawaii-EMA), where the accidental warning originated.

 

It wasn’t just a question of how this could have happened, but also why the state government took so long to admit its error.

Not long afterward, the employee who pushed the alert button was fired, the head of Hawaii-EMA resigned, another employee quit, and a fourth was suspended without pay.

For now, it appears that accountability will end with the punishment of those deemed responsible.

For those who had hoped to know what happened, they were left with a lot of unanswered questions.

For anyone acquainted with the state’s transparency policy, this isn’t a surprise.

The Associated Press, for example, asked for state records that might have revealed how the governor and other state officials dealt with the crisis. What it received was useless information and a lack of cooperation.

The governor’s office still refuses to release phone logs, messages, texts or a calendar related to the day of the false alert, citing an exemption to the open records law. It agreed to provide redacted emails at a charge of $1,485 for the search (waiving $60 because it was in the “public interest”) and $5 for copies.

It also provided two resolutions Gov. David Ige had signed that day — one about the Hawaii Small Business Development Center and the other about discouraging the use of a slur for mental disability.

Hawaii-EMA similarly has been resistant to open-records requests, though it did release a redacted 24-second recording of the drill that provoked the false alert. (The redacted tape consisted of the words “Exercise, exercise, exercise”; a long beep; the phrase “This is not a drill”; another long beep; and a repeat of “Exercise, exercise, exercise.”)

It’s important to note that the only thing special about this situation has been the level of interest outside of Hawaii. Otherwise, how the governor’s office and Hawaii-EMA reacted to the flurry of inquiries was exactly how most government agencies in the state react when faced with information requests — especially those that could unearth potentially damaging or embarrassing information.

In Hawaii, such requests and appeals often languish until the people asking give up in frustration. Agencies often quote prohibitive search and copy fees to discourage records requests. And appeals to the state’s Office of Information Practices (OIP) stretch on for months.

According to a recent study, the average time it takes to get a transparency decision from the OIP is 474 days — despite the fact that the agency has more attorneys and staff per capita than any other state transparency agency. Appealing a state agency’s decision to withhold documents can take two to three years.

In 2015, the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii submitted an open records request for a list of registered voters, but it was denied. It took a lawsuit and a judge’s order to get the list released. While the subject of that request was mildly controversial, it wasn’t the political hot potato that the false missile alert represents.

That might be a good thing.

The governor’s refusal to cooperate with the records requests or even discuss the matter with state legislators could have been the wake-up call Hawaii needs to get serious about transparency. Every year legislators introduce bills meant to make the state’s open records law more effective. Every year those bills get a few hearings then die in committee.

But this time the “business as usual” approach to transparency isn’t cutting it, since the government blunder left Hawaii’s million or so residents literally fearing for their lives. At least one legislator is now demanding more openness from state officials about that 38-minute gap.

State officials need to realize they are digging themselves a deeper hole by refusing to be more forthright about what happened after the false alert.

Their lack of transparency has only strengthened the public’s conviction that government ineptitude is as bad — or worse — than they already thought.

Malia Hill is the policy director of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii (@GrassrootHawaii), a public policy think tank dedicated to limited government.