Saturday, February 7, 2009
KPD Blue; Regarding Sources
By Anthony Sommer
Everything you read in this book is true. It all really happened.
But the story isn’t everything that happened. It can’t be and never will be the whole story because Kauai County government constantly defies both the spirit and the law of Hawaii’s open meetings and public records statutes.
This book is limited to a series of snapshots of the KPD and Kauai County government, afforded only when events align to open windows for a peek inside. In particular, they are drawn from lawsuits against the county and its police department.
To be sure, they represent the worst of the abuses. There are some very fine officers at the KPD and many good people who work for Kauai County.
Perhaps the most dysfunctional aspect of democracy throughout Hawaii is the failure of the news media, particularly in Honolulu.
The third-world attitudes and practices of Kauai County officials traditionally go unchallenged by the Hawaiian press, while in most of the United States the press functions as the watchdog on government. Therein lies the problem.
When a public official illegally closes a conference room door or locks up public records, newspapers in most of the country immediately dispatch their lawyers to the nearest courthouse to force open those meeting rooms and filing cabinets.
On Kauai and, more importantly, in Honolulu, where the state’s two major daily newspapers are published, the press is a willing and complacent lapdog of government. Newspapers and the electronic media only rarely take the government to court. In Kauai’s local culture, no one dares criticize the monarch.
So, the primary sources for this book rarely are Kauai County records or interviews with Kauai County officials or their staff members, whose jobs depend on blind loyalty.
On-the-record interviews with the mayor or county council members are exceedingly rare. Mayor Bryan Baptiste, in his entire first year in office, allowed only two interviews to any members of the press.
Kauai’s government officials believe they have a right to operate in secrecy. And unless the press takes them to court and bloodies their noses with open meeting and public records lawsuits, they will continue to do so.
The interviews for this book were requested. The records were sought. But most were refused.
Instead, I relied very heavily on other public records outside the control of Kauai County government: Court documents.
During the decade covered by the book, Kauai County and the Kauai Police Department (KPD) were sued again and again by both citizens and the police department’s own officers and employees. In almost every case, the county settled in order to avoid a public trial and testimony about how corrupt county government is.
The pleadings in those lawsuits, the case files, are public record. Unlike its own file cabinets, Kauai County can do nothing to block a journalist’s access to court documents.
Most lawsuits against Kauai County were filed in federal court—the U.S. District Court in Honolulu—rather than in state court on Kauai. The reason was simple enough: The local state judge was much too friendly to the county.
The federal courthouse was the best source of available and accurate official documentation. So, this book focuses primarily on those lawsuits.
If it appears Kauai County’s position—and the debate among county officials on formulating those public policies— sometimes is not fully discussed in these pages, it is only because the county refused to cooperate. County officials fought every attempt at access.
I certainly wish it were otherwise, because it is in my professional nature to provide a complete and balanced story. However, Kauai County elected officials repeatedly refused to cooperate.
It also will be obvious that the events related in this book involve a much broader perspective than the KPD.
There is much discussion of the administrations of the two mayors and the conduct of the county council because it is only in the context of their self-imposed secrecy and blatant disregard for the rule of law that this story can be told.
The simple fact is that the woes of the KPD are symptomatic of a much broader problem: the lack of accountability of Kauai County’s elected officials and the cronies and political hacks they appoint to key government posts.
There are efforts afoot to replace Kauai’s “strong mayor” system (which never was intended for small, rural governments) with a “council-manager” form of government in which a professional administrator runs the county and the mayor’s powers are limited to chairing council meetings and cutting ribbons.
The current “strong mayor” system has been an abject failure. Kauai County government and its elected leaders have for too long been totally out of control, hiding their corruption and their blunders in closed-door “executive sessions” and in locked files in constant violation of the state’s sunshine laws.
Accountability to the public—to the voters who put them in office—simply does not exist in Kauai County. That’s the way the mayor and the council members want it.
Historian Robert A. Caro, in his splendid multi-volume biography of President Lyndon Johnson, disputes the popular notion that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Instead, Caro points out: Power reveals the true nature of those who attain it.