Hawaiian government agencies and commissions may not be required to provide access to physical meeting places for virtual hearings following the pandemic.
This is a new provision in Senate Bill 1034 that sought to open government work to the public by updating Hawaii’s Open Sessions Act to allow remote sessions to be held for applications like Zoom and BlueJeans.
Boards and commissions in Hawaii are only allowed to do this because Governor David Ige has suspended the Sunshine Act, as the Assembly Act is commonly known, due to COVID-19. Since then, like other government agencies, bodies and commissions have been allowed to meet virtually through video conferencing so that the public can intervene.
However, one line in SB 1034 has caught the attention of open meeting proponents, fearful it could widen the digital divide and make certain meetings only accessible to those with the appropriate technology.
“We shouldn’t put up barriers in front of people to connect to these meetings,” Brian Black, the Civil Beat Law Center’s executive director for the public interest, told the committee. “I think there should be an official place that people can turn to when they’re not comfortable with technology.”
Meanwhile, advocates for the state Disability and Communications Access Board and other organizations have raised concerns about access for disabled people.
The State Information Practices Office drafted the original draft of SB 1034. It would allow three different types of pandemic-free meetings: one where everyone meets in person; one where board members meet in one place and engage the public from their home or other public places; or a meeting where everyone can meet remotely.
On March 16, the House Pandemic and Disaster Preparedness Committee added a line to SB 1034 that personal meeting locations are optional for these remote meetings.
A public meeting location would only be required if someone asks for it at least three days in advance of the meeting. SB 1034 continues to require physical meeting locations in case a board of directors is holding a meeting in person or holding a conference meeting from different locations in the state.
The Office of Information Practices should have a personal meeting place for the public, even for some meetings where all members would meet remotely. This was to ensure that people without computer access can also take part in these sessions.
Cheryl Kakazu Park, director of the OIP, said in an interview Wednesday that the office had asked lawmakers to clarify language so the public could understand how to request personal access.
She suggested that meeting notes should include clear instructions on how to request access to a public meeting place for a remote hearing.
Park isn’t too concerned that the requirement to ask the public to request personal access to meetings could be an obstacle because if someone can get the meeting notification, they know how to ask for a meeting location.
“It should be as easy as a phone call,” she said.
She anticipates that most major government agencies will continue to provide physical meeting places after the pandemic ends.
SB 1034 released the House Committee on Justice and Hawaiian Affairs on Tuesday. There is now a vote by the 51-strong house.
At the hearing on Tuesday, Black of the Civil Beat Law Center told lawmakers that figuring out how to use remote meeting technology is not easy for some people.
Stirling Morita, president of the Hawaii chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, also called on lawmakers to abolish the provision.
“We believe this could be an imposition on people who cannot afford to access the Internet,” Morita wrote in a testimonial. “This provision also assumes that people can act quickly after an agenda has been published. that’s not realistic. “
And disability advocates have raised concerns that SB 1034 is not doing enough to force the authorities to comply with the Disabled Americans Act.
Colin Whited, the ADA coordinator for the state’s Disability and Communications Access Board, relies on an American Sign Language interpreter to communicate with the boards and to know what happens during meetings. He told lawmakers that if the visual feed for a public meeting is suddenly interrupted or if a meeting lasts longer than his interpreter can stay, he will lose access to the meeting.
Whited suggested lawmakers need additional support services or subtitles for meeting video feeds.
Rep. Mark Nakashima, the chairman of the committee, left the provision on meeting requests in SB 1034 largely unaffected.
“There is no obligation on the agency to have a location and equipment there until someone says they will be there,” Nakashima said during the hearing on Tuesday.
Nakashima said he plans to include a language in the committee’s report on the bill stating that access to computers in public libraries can meet the requirements for boards to provide a physical meeting place.
Since the Senate bill was changed by the House of Representatives, both houses will need to reach an agreement on the final language for the measure to pass.
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