Annual Lava Tube, Torch of Light Awards Presented

March 15, 2019, 9:25 AM HST (Updated March 15, 2019, 9:25 AM)
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Hawai‘i County Councilmember Sue Lee Loy. Photo courtesy of Big Island Press Club

The Big Island Press Club (BIPC) awarded its annual meritorious Torch of Light Award to County Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy and the Lava Tube dishonor award to the county Civil Defense Agency, according to a March 15, 2019, BIPC press release.

The Torch of Light award is given to an individual or entity who brightens the public’s right to know, while the Lava Tube dishonor is given for a lack of communication and keeping the public in the dark, BIPC said.

County Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy earns meritorious Torch of Light award

BIPC selected Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy for its Torch of Light award for sponsoring a charter amendment that brings more transparency to the process of awarding raises to Hawai‘i County government’s top officials.

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Lee Loy, who was a freshman council member at the time, successfully got first the Hawai‘i County Council, and then the voters, to agree to more transparency for the Salary Commission. Council support was unanimous, and the ballot initiative was approved by 44,631 voters, or more than 80% of those casting ballots.

The charter amendment slows down the approval process to provide safeguards for the public by requiring, at least 30 days prior to the approval of any salary adjustment, public notice of the proposals in at least two daily newspapers in the county, a public hearing videoconferenced so both east and west Hawaii residents can participate and a “detailed report” of how the commission reached its recommendations, which would be open for public inspection.

Lee Loy’s work does not keep top government officials from receiving raises. It just gives the public the opportunity to weigh in.

The Big Island Press Club, the state’s oldest press club, founded in 1967, has awarded the Lava Tube and the Torch of Light annually since 1997 on Freedom of Information Day, March 16. This day also marks the birthday of our nation’s fourth president, James Madison. Born in 1751, Madison was the principal architect of the U.S. Constitution, and one of the three authors of the Federalist Papers; he is recognized by historians as one of America’s earliest and foremost advocates for open, accountable governance.

Big Island Press Club logoHawai‘i County Civil Defense awarded Lava Tube dishonor

The Lava Tube dishonor couldn’t be more aptly named this year, BIPC said. It is awarded to the Hawai‘i County Civil Defense Agency for its handling of communications with the public and the media during the 2018 volcanic eruption. Information often wasn’t forthcoming; when media releases were issued they sometimes contained errors. In addition, Civil Defense didn’t participate in daily Hawaiian Volcano Observatory telephone media briefings, BIPC said.

Many off-island journalists from around the country and world participated in the telephone briefings, and when they asked questions that would be most appropriately answered by Civil Defense, they went unanswered.

When journalists called Civil Defense for clarification on press releases, they were often told by the media liaison to send an email with a question, which is inefficient when lava may be flowing toward a community. Sometimes those tasked with responding to calls literally knew nothing.

One journalist talked to a FEMA “media specialist” who had arrived on the island just the day before and was told he had no idea how to respond to or get answers to questions.

The only Civil Defense media briefings were in person at the Civil Defense building, outside; they refused to add a phone broadcast or Facebook stream on the grounds it would disadvantage deaf viewers because there was no closed captioning. That completely disadvantaged journalists from anywhere outside of Hilo, and it’s possible that contributed to much of the inaccurate information reported worldwide about the lava flow.

Previous Lava Tube Dishonorees

  • 2017 Hawaii Office of Information Practices
  • 2016 Former Mayor Billy Kenoi
  • 2015 State Land Board Chairwoman Suzanne Case
  • 2014 Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago
  • 2013 Democratic Party House District 5 Council
  • 2012 State Sen. Clayton Hee
  • 2011 Governor Neil Abercrombie
  • 2010 Hawaii County Council
  • 2009 Noelani Whittington, County Department of Public Works
  • 2008 Mayor Harry Kim and Hawaii County Council
  • 2007 State Board of Education
  • 2006 Honolulu, Kauai, and Hawaii County Councils
  • 2005 District Judge Matthew S.K. Pyun
  • 2004 State Land Board Chairman Peter Young
  • 2003 State Sen. Cal Kawamoto
  • 2002 University of Hawaii Board of Regents
  • 2001 University of Hawaii Board of Regents
  • 2000 State Rep. Eric Hamakawa and Hawaii County Councilman James Arakaki
  • 1999 Hawaii County Council
  • 1998 Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano
  • 1997 Hawaii County Councilman Elroy Osorio

Previous Torch of Light Honorees

  • 2017 Brian Black of the Civil Beat Law Center
  • 2016 West Hawaii Today reporter Nancy Cook Lauer
  • 2015 State Sen. Lorraine Inouye
  • 2014 USGS HVO Scientists
  • 2013 Mayor Billy Kenoi
  • 2012 County Councilwoman and state Rep. Helene Hale (posthumously)
  • 2011 State Judicial Selection Commission
  • 2010 Hawaii County Civil Defense and other departments
  • 2009 Legislature, Gov. Linda Lingle
  • 2008 Les Kondo, Office of Information Practices
  • 2007 West Hawaii Today
  • 2006 Lillian Koller, State Department of Human Services
  • 2005 Retired Circuit Judge Paul de Silva
  • 2004 UH Manoa Journalism Professor Beverly Keever
  • 2003 U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink (posthumously)
  • 2002 Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim
  • 2001 Hawaii County Clerk Al Konishi
  • 2000 Hawaii Gov. Ben Cayetano
  • 1999 Jerry Rothstein and Judith Graham
  • 1998 Environment Hawaii and Common Cause
  • 1997 Society of Professional Journalists, Hawaii Chapter
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