A commentary by Don Ray
Benefit of the doubt.
Every government agency deserves the benefit of the doubt — especially since I’m a new guy to the islands. After all, I won’t know for a while what to expect when I make a simple request to examine even the most innocuous of public record documents. Heck, I’ve been walked into offices where the staff members practically roll out a red carpet and strike up the band on my behalf. On the flip side, I’ve had many experiences in where it appears that the staff members have gutted their offices of every record that I could possibly want to view. It’s as if an advancing army will soon break down the doors and rummage through the debris in search of the enemy’s strategic battle plans.
So when my associate and I walked through the doors of one agency a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t know what to expect. Even when they told us that the gentleman with whom we wished to speak was unavailable, I took it in stride. I never imagined, however, that my simple request to talk with one official would turn put the agency in the defensive mode.
I’m intentionally withholding the name of the specific agency until I determine whether I’m dealing with apathy, incompetence, outright resistence or a public access slugfest. Again, I don’t yet know what the norm is. My sense of fair play prevents me from using the power of my virtual pen to paint an inaccurate picture of an agency or its staff.
It all started before I accepted the contract position with Grassroot Institute of Hawaii as its “Transparency Correspondent”. Policy Analyst Pearl Hahn had sent to each of the major state agencies a request for copies of travel expense reports relating to any travel outside of the Hawaiian Islands. She had followed the letter of the law. The goal was to compile the records and post them as part of a database that would enable anyone to monitor any foreign or Mainland travel by any state employee.
When I arrived, I wasn’t at all surprised that nearly all of the agencies had responded with estimates of the amount of time it would take their staff to locate, retrieve and remove personal information from the records before they could copy them and send them. Indeed, some agencies in some states would simply send the copies right away, but the cost and time estimates were not at all uncommon.
What was uncommon — at least from my perspective — was that some of the agencies were telling us that they would require upwards of a hundred hours to process and send the documents.
So Pearl and I decided to make a personal visit to one of the agencies to see if we could alter her initial request to make the task a little easier. The official who had sent us the response in this case wasn’t available. He was out of the office. A few days later, Pearl arranged to meet with the official and returned less than satisfied with is explanation as to why it would take so long. She asked me if I’d go back to hear what he had to say.
The gentleman was, indeed, in his office when we arrived on that visit a week or so later, but a most polite secretary told us that he was very busy. When I asked her if we could wait until he came up for air — we would only need about three minutes of his time — she told us that it was impossible.
“He asked that you send him an e-mail,” she said. “He needs a request in writing.
I had a notebook with me, so I wrote the most polite request for his time and asked her to give it to him.
When she returned with another polite rejection, we asked her for something very simple — something that just about every agency has at hand — a copy of the agency’s telephone directory. She claimed, however, that she didn’t have the authority to give it out. Our response was standard procedure for citizens pressing for cooperation.
“OK, would you please allow us to make the request of someone who has the authority to provide us with a copy?”
She played the “Mr. X is the only one who can make that decision and, as I told you, he’s not available. You’ll have to put that request in writing.”
Another sheet from my legal pad and she would soon have another written request. While she was out of our sight, a most helpful appearing young employee stepped out of his cubicle and notices us sittting in the reception area. He started to walk our way and say, “Can I help . . .” when someone out of our sight caught his attention and, no doubt, sent a body language message that said something akin to “Wait! Don’t talk to them!” or something like that. Whatever it was, it worked. He instantly got the message and did an “about face”. He retreated into his cubicle without even a trace of eye contact with us. When the secretary returned for my second handwritten request, we thanked her and left the office.
Pearl called the official a while later to apologize for any inconvenience we might have caused him or his secretary. I wrote an e-mail to him in which, again, I requested the opportunity to meet with him for a few minutes. I also mentioned that it was possible that the time and cost estimate he sent to us was either a communication error or an interpretation problem. If not, I suggested, the only other possibility was that he was intentionally trying to discourage us from getting the information. There was one more possibility, I pondered. The only other explanation was that his agency was woefully inefficient, which would be of great concern to us and to our readers.
More than a week later, he had still not responded, so we made contact with that agency’s Public Information Officer. Our official request was, once again, for an agency telephone list, but we mentioned the frustration we were having getting someone to agree to speak with us about the original request.
The PIO responded fairly quickly — I’m not certain if our call to the state’s duty attorney assigned to the Office of Information Practices accounted for the promptness, however. The only thing that came out of the e-mail was a link to the agency’s phone listing. However, it didn’t include anyone’s names. They’d have to write the names in by hand.
In case you’re unfamiliar with indicators of lack of cooperation, you should know that this is the time to sound the citizen’s alarm. I wrote back to say that I was astounded that employees throughout that agency had no way of knowing the phone numbers of specific staff members in their own agency. Surely, I wrote, there’s something sitting on every desk or in the computer that had the information. Please copy it and make it available to us, I said.
The most recent response was that the PIO had discovered a listing somewhere and was e-mailing it to us. With regard to our request to meet someone in person, the e-mail stated:
Because there appears to have been some miscommunication and/or misunderstanding in the past, it is probably best that we correspond in writing.
Here we go again.
I’m sharing this long story with you so that you can see an example of what we hope we won’t find when we visit other agencies. Again, it’s not fair to identify this agency until we’re certain that we understand the reason for everything seeming to look so peculiar.
And, of course, we hope that other government officials think twice before they try to brush us aside — or brush any member of the public aside.
Sometimes we have to remind them about the presumption of openness and transparency.
Standby for updates on this silly saga.