Tag Archives: Transparency

Interior Ignorance, Caught on Tape

Want to know how big and unusual an endeavor a research project like the 4hawaiiansonly site is?  As of October 2010, the Federal Register listed 565 Native American tribes as Indian Entities Recognized and Eligible To Receive Services From the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs. Federal funds flows to those tribes, just as it does to Native Hawaiians, but as you can see in the video below (captured at the 2010 CERA Conference), even the Department of the Interior doesn’t know the scope of the money involved.  Watch carefully as George Skibine, Director of the Office of Indian Gaming within the Department of the Interior and Acting Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, confesses that the federal government doesn’t really follow the money, and clearly isn’t interested in doing so:

Transparency?— Not with the Akaka bill

Yesterday there was much talk in Washington, DC that Senator Inouye was planning to attach the Akaka bill (presumably the latest version after major changes) to the Senate Omnibus Spending bill later in December. That would mean that would mean that it would pass without hearings or any other vetting. Indicating that the possibility was real, four seasoned U. S. Senators released statements deploring the idea. See press release here. At about the same time, Hawaii Reporter reported the story and quoted Peter Boylan, Senator Inouye’s spokesman, as saying Inouye was not planning such a move and reaffirming Inouye’s 2009 statement that attachment to an appropriations bill would be “nonsensical”. See text here.

Next was Robert Costa at NRO who reported Senator Inouye told NRO that he would like to bring the bill forward, but “it depends on if we can work out something with amendments”. He then quoted the Senator “We’ve been working on this for over a decade now….. No one can say we’ve been hiding this”. That remark prompted a response from Steven Duffield here.

If you are not confused, you should be. But here is the bottom line: there is no transparency here. GRIH stands for transparency in government. Hawaii’s people do not know anything substantive about this bill and people in government are keeping them in the dark.k

Before statehood in 1959, Hawaii had a Plebiscite. Approval was 94+%. Now a secret “nonsensical” attachment will skirt that? Walk your talk, Senator Inouye.

A Little Sunshine

Government transparency is one of those things that everyone says they support, but not many people give much thought to.  But when you think about it, it’s pretty powerful stuff.  Without transparency, a necessary check on government is gone.  The media does its best, but with limited resources, a need to turn a profit, and other important demands on their time, they aren’t able to be a constant check on the tendency of government to conceal information from the public.

Yes, “conceal.”  Some people might find that melodramatic, but you’d be surprised to learn how often government agencies try to avoid even the simplest and most banal disclosures.  And when you think about it, there’s a certain logic to that.  The public tends to get a little touchy about how their tax dollars are spent, and that’s something that can be worrying to a certain kind of bureaucrat.  Rather than discuss why they felt the need to spend hundreds of dollars on catering, they’d rather people just didn’t know about it.

And that’s why it’s important that we support efforts like Grassroot Institute’s newest transparency project: Hawaii Sunshine.  The newly launched website highlights all state expenditures and state salaries–it’s a treasure trove of information for any Hawaii citizen who is looking to really learn about where our tax dollars go.  Even better, the site encourages people to participate in the fight for greater government transparency by giving people the ability to submit “Pork Alerts” with comments and information on specific expenditures on the site.  And a forum lets visitors continue the discussion amongst themselves.

In truth, the Hawaii Sunshine site is a great toy.  I just spent 20 minutes searching for different kinds of vendors and seeing how much money was being spent on restaurant meals, dry cleaners, taxi rides, and so on.  So check it out, and (if you’re like me) try your best not to shout “I want my money back!” at your computer screen.

Stacked Deck

As I’ve mentioned before, there are Native Hawaiians who are opposed to the Akaka Bill.  This is not such an incredible notion.  After all, there’s no requirement that one must close one’s eyes to the problems in the Bill just because of one’s ethnic heritage.

And it is equally obvious that OHA supports the Akaka Bill.  Though the word “support” drastically understates their approach.  There are professional cheerleaders that would feel that OHA goes a bit overboard in its efforts to hype up the Bill.  It’s hard to say how much of their money and staff time they are currently devoting to lobbying for passage of the Akaka Bill, but it’s obviously a central priority.  And why wouldn’t it be?  There’s plenty of debate over the far-reaching impact of the Akaka Bill in Hawaii, but one thing that is certain is that OHA will benefit greatly.  Already entrenched as the elite governing “voice” of Native Hawaiians in Hawaii, OHA is situated to be hugely influential in implementing a new Native Hawaiian government.  Take that for what it is.  I’m not saying that OHA is anything less than perfectly aboveboard and transparent.  I’m just saying that they have a lot of money and a lot of political power and are lobbying to get more.

Of course, this has made some Native Hawaiians a bit uneasy.  So uneasy, in fact, that they filed suit against OHA, challenging its expenditures in support of the Akaka Bill.  Though it would seem reasonable that Native Hawaiians would like to see a little more balance in OHA’s political machinations (especially when using money from the Trust), it seems that the Average Kimo has very little say in how OHA can spend his money.  In Day v. Apoliona, the Courts interpreted the OHA mission in a way that gives the OHA Trustees enormous leeway in how they choose to fulfill OHA’s mission . . . up to and including the Akaka lobbying efforts.  It makes you wonder what wouldn’t be allowed as part of the OHA mission.  It seems like pretty much anything that uses the word “Hawaiian” is fair game.  What’s worse is that this closes another avenue for Native Hawaiians to question OHA’s expenditures and priorities.  So much for accountability.  Perhaps it’s time that Native Hawaiians start asking some hard questions about who they trust to administer their Trust.

OHA’s Official Grant Goals

Break out the champagne and the 12-pages of Hawaiiglish, it’s OHA grant application time!  (What is Hawaiiglish?  It’s the name I’ve come up with for the bizarre hybrid of English and Hawaiian that is especially popular in the field of obtaining Hawaiian grants or talking about Hawaii when you’re running for office.  You know . . . when you get sentences like, “The kapuna understand the matrix of needs required to foster care of the ohana.”  Yes, this is a pet peeve of mine, since I feel like it’s pandering–as though Native Hawaiians are going to applaud anything you say just because you stuck the word “pono” in the sentence.)

Anyway, as part of its announcement of the new granting year, OHA also published its list of priorities.  And, to be scrupulously fair, many of them are completely reasonable and even necessary.  For example, there is a huge emphasis placed on increasing economic self-sufficiency for Native Hawaiians, with a specific goal of increasing family income and housing stability.  There are also laudable mentions of the need to exceed education standards and preserve Hawaiian culture.  Heck, I don’t even have a quarrel with the emphasis on preserving the environment and protecting the land.  There are places in this country where I might not be moved by that (I’m looking at you here, Newark), but Hawaii . . . well, that is some beautiful, beautiful stuff.

Of course, what I’ve done here is once again (like a broken CD or KPOI’s playlist) come back, yet again, to the same theme.  In effect, laudable goals do not equal laudable programs.  That’s why this exercise in transparency is so necessary.  Native Hawaiians deserve to know if all of these efforts to increase their family income, preserve their land, and protect their culture are actually good and effective program, or if they’re nothing more than vanity projects, giveaways to favored groups, or noble ideas that just don’t work in the real world.  Or whether they’re working like crazy and just need some more publicity and support to really help.  Some people get threatened by transparency efforts like 4HawaiiansOnly.  They think we’re trying to attack people or take away their support.  That’s a very defensive and short-sighted view.  All we’re doing is giving people the information they need to make an informed judgment about how their money is being spent.  You have to wonder about the motivations of those who want to prevent people from having that knowledge.

Isn’t That Special

Ah, the “special interest.”  It’s every politician’s favorite bogeyman.  So convenient as a target for political diatribe–not least of all because it’s so vague.  After all, what is a “special interest” really?  When it comes right down to it, it’s a group with political currency that you don’t particularly care for.  After all, the ones you like are “legitimate and necessary issues or expenditures.”

Witness Rep. Oshiro’s recent opinion article in the Advertiser (on April 20th, 2010).  In it, Rep. Oshiro talks about the difficulties of the budget process and blames special interests for the “hard decisions” that are part of that process, especially when so many of those aforementioned special interests benefit from tax credits or tax exemptions.  Not to be insensitive or anything, but it’s not like there’s all that much to being a legislator.  (Believe me, anyone who has watched C-SPAN for more than 10 minutes and retained consciousness throughout would agree.)  So pardon me for not being overcome with sympathy over the difficulties of occasionally having to make a hard budgetary decision.  We regular folks do that every day.  It’s called, “trying to get by.”  Only when we mess up, we don’t get to make exculpatory speeches about it.  Instead, we get our electricity disconnected or the car repossessed.  So yeah, we elected you all to make the hard decisions.  Make them.

But that’s not actually the worst part.  After all, “special interests” are just the ones you feel don’t deserve any financial help or breaks.  So some politicians would call businesses that get incentives to stay in Hawaii and employ people “special interests.”  Others would say that political groups or specific classes of citizens (including those that get a lot of government funding) are special interests.  And some might point out that the legislature gave itself a raise, making it one of the special-est interests of all.

What would be nice (other than being able to vote myself a raise–what a great gig that is) is if our representatives stopped trying to manipulate us with their have-my-cake-and-eat-it-too talk about special interests and instead were more honest about where our money was going.  Because I may not be that special, but that’s where my interest really is.

Transparency Shouldn’t Have “Annoyance” Exceptions

Hawaii Reporter currently has a good summary of the effort to pass a law that would allow the Hawaii Department of Health to ignore requests for the President’s birth certificate.  (As you can imagine, there have been quite a few requests, and the DOH claims that it has become a waste of staff resources.)

Well, cry me a river.

A word of explanation: I once worked in a government FOIA office–for the Army as it so happened.  This was not long after two extremely unpopular Army decisions–the adoption of the Ranger beret for all soldiers and the awarding of the “Army of One” contract.  To say that we were besieged by requests for information about both of these things was an understatement.  Let’s just say that a large section of America was not at all happy about it and made that very clear as they sought more information about the decision process.

And “vexatious” requesters?  Well, I challenge the DOH to beat some of the doozies I encountered.  Processing something so simple and straightforward as a request for information about the microchips implanted by the Army in everyone’s brains was an easy day.

But I do have a point here–it didn’t matter what we in the FOIA office thought about the legitimacy of the requests we got.  We processed them.  Because that is the right thing to do.  Because an open and transparent government needs to treat all requests with respect–not just the ones that don’t annoy us.  And when we had to deal with the same question over and over and over and over again (like the beret), we did the logical thing–we made everything as open and easily available as possible and then streamlined the response process so that it didn’t use up too many of our resources.  (Hint to the DOH–Copy machines.  Use them.)  Did we gripe in the lunch room?  Sure.  But we never would have dreamed that someone would ever try to create a legal exception to the principle of transparency just out of annoyance.

As to why this is all important to the Native Hawaiian project–well, it should be obvious.  This is not a good precedent to set–especially in a state government that has made a lot of promises about sunshine and openness, but hasn’t always followed through.  If the legislature can carve out one exception to transparency policy out of reasons that amount to little more than bureaucratic irritation, then there’s not much to stop them from deciding that there are plenty of other things that they don’t much care to share with the public.

Making transparency a pick-and-choose option in the hands of bureaucrats violates the principle of open government and sets us on a slippery slope.