Kauai Councilmember Ross Kagawa’s proposal to eliminate term limits for councilmembers is a surprising and somewhat audacious move, especially since he would likely personally benefit if it were to pass. If this measure was placed on the ballot and approved by voters during the 2018 general election, it could possibly take effect and impact the 2020 elections where he would otherwise be “terming out” and be unable to run.
In addition, achieving 10 years of service is a critical benchmark used in the calculation of pension benefits for an elected official. Removing the existing eight-year term limit would provide an easier path for some present councilmembers to gain those financial benefits that otherwise might be foregone, or at the minimum delayed.
It is possible that the charter amendment could be structured so that it does not take effect until every current councilmember has “termed out,” so as to ensure that none who vote on this ill-advised measure will personally benefit. At the minimum, one would hope that the Kauai Ethics Commission has been consulted on this issue.
Ethical considerations aside, eliminating term limits for the Kauai County Council is a bad, bad, bad idea. I agree with Councilmember Kagawa’s comments in The Garden Island story of Jan. 28 that, “it’s difficult to get voted onto the council …” But cannot understand his conclusion that somehow making incumbents even stronger than they already are (by eliminating term limits), will somehow make it easier for new candidates to be elected.
It is extremely difficult for new candidates to be elected because the system requires them to run countywide against entrenched incumbents with islandwide name recognition, not because they are deterred by two-year terms or term limits.
Kauai is the only County in Hawaii that does not have some form of district representation.
The establishment of “Council Districts” is the issue the current council should be discussing and voting on, not the elimination of term limits. If the Kauai County Council is serious about reinvigorating public participation in the local electoral process, establishing separate Council Districts is the answer. At the present time individuals can “win” the majority of votes for large swaths of the entire island and yet fail to gain election to the Council due to the countywide “top 7 vote winners” system now in place.
There are virtually no “one-on-one” campaign debates as no candidate is ever compared directly to another. Instead, the interested public is subjected to a seemingly endless array of “forums,” a distorted beauty pageant of sorts where each candidate reaffirms their love for a clean environment, a strong economy, and a fiscally responsible county budget.
When it finally comes time to vote, the public is faced with the “vote for no more than 7” and related strategies of plunking, or voting for less than seven to maximize the impact of the vote. The vote is never clearly between two specific individuals that will be responsible for representing the needs of a specific district or constituency.
“Council Districts” can come in many forms but the easiest form to implement that would represent a solid step in the right direction would be a three-fourths configuration — three district seats established along the existing House District boundaries (thus avoiding the need and expense to develop totally new district boundaries), and four “at large” seats.
This proposal would thus allow each voter “5 votes” on election day — one vote for their “District Representative on the Council” and four votes for the “at large” seats, instead of the existing seven votes. The total number of councilmembers would remain at seven. Again, there are many variations that could be considered but the primary objective would be to retain a strong element of the “at large” system while allowing the residents of individual geographic areas to elect council members who actually live in their neighborhoods and who are accountable to a specific constituent base.
The time to make the transition to “Council District” elections is long overdue and this is the question that should be posed to voters in the 2018 general election, not the proposal to eliminate term limits currently on the table.
A public hearing on this issue will be held on Feb. 21 at 1:30 p.m. in the Council Chambers at the Historic County Building. I encourage all to share their thoughts (for or against) with the council on this important matter by attending in person if possible and/or submitting written testimony to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gary Hooser formerly served in the state Senate, where he was majority leader. He also served for eight years on the Kauai County Council and was the former director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control. He serves presently in a volunteer capacity as board president of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action (HAPA) and is executive director of the Pono Hawaii Initiative.