By Keli’i Akina
Legal reforms can go a long way. But when it comes to putting a stop to longstanding corruption in Hawaii, the biggest impact of all will have to come from Hawaii’s voters.
That’s my most important takeaway from the conversation I had with Judge Dan Foley during this week’s episode of my “Hawaii Together” program on ThinkTech Hawaii.
Foley is a notable figure in Hawaii jurisprudence, having been both a civil rights lawyer and a member of the Hawaii Intermediate Court of Appeals. It’s no wonder he was tapped by House Speaker Scott Saiki to head the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct — the state’s effort to root out corruption after a series of scandals heavily damaged the public’s trust in local government across the isles.
The Commission was charged with looking primarily at government ethics, lobbying and campaign spending. Its 396-page report resulted in 28 legislative recommendations, 20 of which were approved by the Legislature this year.
“That’s a remarkable success,” Foley told me.
He said there are “at least eight measures, significant measures, that didn’t pass, but this is the first regular session, and there’s another one coming up. … We’re at halftime. … We had a good first half — 20 of 28 ain’t bad.”
Foley said he was disappointed that a bill to prevent lawmakers from soliciting and accepting funds during legislative sessions didn’t pass. Also disheartening, he said, was the failure of a bill that would have capped fees for open records requests.
“Right now,” he said, “access to public records depends on how much money you have. People with money can buy their way in, people without money cannot.”
Foley said Hawaii’s short legislative sessions and questionable conference committee practices also frustrate transparency. He singled out this year’s last-minute approval of the state budget as an example, calling it “the poster child on how not to do things, and that should not be repeated.
Instead, he said: “You can extend a session. You can come up with your draft budget earlier and not wait until the last minute. People should not be voting on measures they haven’t read. Things shouldn’t be added to a measure — I don’t even know if that’s legal — after it’s voted upon.”
In general, Foley sounded optimistic that the many measures passed this year will help improve ethics in Hawaii government. But, he added, there will always be elected officials, lobbyists and businesses who will try to push the limits of what is legal, so the real key to rooting out corruption is Hawaii’s voters.
“Ultimately, it comes down to the voter,” he said. “People complain about the Legislature. They’ll say the presiding officer is a dictator, or the chair of the Ways and Means or Finance committees is a dictator. [But] everybody in the Legislature has one vote. If people are unsatisfied with the presiding officers, it’s because the majority of that body allows it. Same with the chair, or same with measures. And the voters put them in and keep them in every two years.”
He continued: “A lot of people will say, ‘Oh, this Commission report won’t mean anything. Whatever the Legislature will do will mean nothing.’ But that plays into the cynicism of the voter, the disillusionment. So my whole message is: Let’s get engaged, as bad as it is. … Just because [our government has] been, let’s say, a little less than honest and transparent in the past, doesn’t mean it can’t be honest and transparent in the future.”
Foley noted that Hawaii has one of the lowest voter turnouts in the country. Could that be why some of our government officials have felt empowered to not do what’s pono — because they think they won’t be held accountable?
I think that might be part of the problem, so it is our kuleana to put leaders in office who will do right by us, not themselves. Let’s vote. Let’s stay in touch with our representatives at all levels of government to let them know that we care and are paying attention.
As Foley said: “You roll up your sleeves, you get to work, you be positive, you don’t give up, and you can accomplish a lot of things.”
With that kind of an attitude, we can make Hawaii a state where sunshine abounds — not just on the beach, but in all our political affairs as well. Our future depends on it.
Keli‘i Akina is president and CEO of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.