Guest Viewpoint for Monday — January 23, 2006

• Politics and principle

Politics and principle

By Horace Stoessel

You can’t take the politics out of government, but you can reduce government to nothing but politics. A few years ago a councilman told me that in the real world of Kaua’i government, lip service is paid to the charter but all decision-making is political. Now that the political season is heating up, you can see for yourself the truth of the councilman’s remark by observing the political posturing on display in marathon council meetings and in the stream of PR releases from the mayor’s office. When the spin becomes so thin that you can see right through it, do we then have what the Sunshine Law means by transparency in government?

When government is reduced to nothing but politics, what happens to the public interest? What happens to the principles that should guide public policy? They take a back seat to political expediency, coming into play only when they serve the purposes of the politicians.

Of course, in the politician’s mind, his purposes are public policy and are in the public interest. By definition, if there is fault in a given case the fault lies elsewhere. Deflecting and re-directing blame is the first rule of politics. The second rule is to take credit, either legitimately or by the manipulation of the public’s perception of events and what they mean. An informed and vocal public is the only effective countervailing force to this pattern of politics-asusual — there is no self-correcting mechanism in politics

The ease with which local politicians switch parties is a symptom of the triumph of political expediency over principle. Political parties at their best present the voters with alternative values to choose between, and party affiliation means that a politician is committed to those values. Nowadays political power is the be-all and end-all. Values are subservient to partisan quests for power and the ambitions of electable (they hope) politicians. When values take a back seat, honest debates and political courage also take a back seat.

The reduction of government to nothing but politics has led to a shift. The political battle is now between entrenched powers and the people, not between the competing values of political parties, as was once the case. It remains to be seen if the politicians have overreached in their fight against the Ohana Kauai charter amendment or their attack on OIP. These actions, financed with taxpayer dollars, challenge the will of the sovereign people as expressed respectively in the charter and in state law. Court decisions in these cases will not alter the fact that the political power structure has crossed the Rubicon in its determination to prove that the only power the people have is the power to vote for their favorite politicians.

Less dramatic than the court cases is the campaign by those wielding political power to ensure that the Charter Commission proposes no significant changes in the way power is allocated and exercised or in the way government officials are held (or not held) accountable. The mayor and council chairman praise the work of the Commission and in the same breath tell them and the world that only “tweaks” are necessary to bring the charter up-to-date. They rely on their authority, not fact-based debate, to carry the day.

Public interest in the work of the Commission is greater than at any time in the past, but it is still minimal. Public ignorance, apathy, and blind trust still work in favor of the politicians.

However, the jury is still out on what the Commission will propose and the voters will approve. It is not too late for public-minded citizens to pay attention to the issues now being considered by the Commission. Do we need a county manager system? District elections? A Parks and Recreation Department? Full-time council members? Spending limits? A permanent Charter Commission? These are just some of the issues on the Commission’s agenda.

In my opinion, the weightiest question facing the Commission is how to make the first major mid-course correction in 35 years in the charter as a whole. There is abundant evidence that a major revision is needed, and the charter itself contemplates the need for a “new charter” at some point. But in the past the public has relied on 50 random amendments as the way to update the charter.

If you want to see a group of citizen volunteers who take their work seriously and who welcome and respect input from their fellow citizens, I recommend that you attend their sessions and/or watch them on Ho’ike. As matters now stand it will be eight years before you have another realistic opportunity to say how you want local government to work.

  • Horace Stoessel is a resident of Kapa’a.

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