Restrictions On Testimony Not Allowed

The Maui News, July 11, 2007

By HARRY EAGAR, Staff Writer

WAILUKU – The state Office of Information Practices has written an opinion that public bodies cannot restrict testimony on agenda items.

If a government board or committee wants to narrow the focus of a discussion, the office said, it would have to write a more specific agenda.

The question arose from a March 13 Maui Planning Commission meeting. The commission wanted to receive an annual report from Maui Beach Limited Partnership about its disbursement of funds from a settlement agreement with West Maui Preservation Association Inc. It was not an action item.

Sharyn Matin, founder of WMPA, wanted to present a more extensive explanation of events from the past year than Deputy Planning Director Colleen Suyama thought was necessary or appropriate.

Using transcripts and videotapes, OIP concluded that Suyama asked Matin to limit her testimony “to a narrower range of issues than the agenda item reasonably encompassed.”

“Through its accedence to Ms. Suyama’s limitations of Ms. Matin’s testimony, the commission violated the Sunshine Law’s public testimony requirement.” The office added that “the violation does not appear to have been intentional.”

The opinion by staff attorney Jennifer Brooks concluded:

“The commission may not restrict testifiers from testifying on issues that fall within the general subject matter of an agenda item. Although the commission can require that testimony be related to the agenda item, the commission must interpret the agenda item broadly.”

Lance Collins, attorney for WMPA, said the association was reviewing the ruling but was unlikely to pursue the matter further.

“The point has been made,” he said.

He said public bodies “really need to understand the Sunshine Law is there in order to have a very open and vibrant discussion.”

Planning Director Jeff Hunt said the department “fully supports the Sunshine Law” and was “only trying to focus testimony to help the planning commission be expeditious with its time.”

He apologized to WMPA for the unintentional error and said in the future the department will try to “make its agendas more precise.”

Suyama said Monday her handling of the March meeting “should not be reflective of the planning commission, who have been generous with granting testimony.”

She said she apologized to Matin and the WMPA for restricting the presentation.