Commission considers rule changes

Members of the Kaua’i County Charter Commission are studying proposed charter amendments that will change the way members of the Kaua’i County Council and the mayor have operated for the past 10 years, if approved.

Editor’s note: This is the first of two stories on proposed charter amendments that are under review by members of the Kaua’i County Charter Commission.

Some of the key proposals include: having a county manager, and not the mayor, manage the county’s financial matters; setting up districts and term limitations for members of the Kaua’i County Council; and making council positions full-time.

At the same time, the commissioners have looked at other key proposals, including those to:

  • Keep county budgets to what they were the prior year, allowing only small increases tied to inflation and population growth. The intent is to keep county budgets from getting larger and larger;
  • Increasing the number of members on the Kaua’i Police Commission from five to seven members, for instance, to ensure the transition of power and continuity of efforts on projects.

These recommendations are among 53 proposed charter amendments that have been developed thus far from input from residents, officials in county departments and others, commission Chairman Louis Abrams told The Garden Island.

The commission, whose members are appointed by the mayor and are approved by the council, started their work last year.

Commission members have solicited comments from residents and government officials in the development of proposed amendments.

The commission members will scrutinize the proposals, analyze them, and send selected ones to County Clerk Peter Nakamura for placement on the Nov. 7 general election ballot, Abrams said.

The commission has until August to deliver the recommendations to Nakamura.

The commissioners have their own feelings about the proposals, but they have remained neutral, Abrams said.

“It has been tough, and we have been schooled by some of our residents,” Abrams told The Garden Island. “And we have personal judgments. But we need to put that aside.”

The work of the commission is historic, as the body is only the fourth commission assembled since the approval of the charter in 1969.

Finding out what the voters “have on their minds” is one of the guiding lights in the development of proposals this time around, Abrams said.

The commissioners are scheduled to meet in the second-floor council chambers of the historic County Building at 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday.

Some of the key topics to be discussed deal with proposals to change to a county manager form of government, and to limit spending by leaders of county government.

The former is a hot item with residents, Abrams said. “Their position is that they feel the county manager is skilled in running government, as opposed to an elected leader who comes in cold (to public office) and tries to adapt,” he said.

If this proposal became a reality, the mayor would take care of ceremonial county matters, and the county manager would take over the fiscal responsibility of county operations, Abrams said.

But if the county manager falters, he could be axed by his or her boss, the members of the Kaua’i County Council, Abrams said.

If this proposal were approved by voters, the mayor would lose control over the county’s largest department, the Kaua’i County Department of Public Works, Abrams said. That department would be managed by the county manger, he said.

The idea of a county manager stepping forward to do such work appeals to voters, Abrams said.

Making such a change in the leadership of the county is no easy task, Abrams said.

“It sounds simple, but it is much more complicated, and that is what we are sorting out,” Abrams said. “For one thing, the powers of the county manager have to laid out.”

The commission members also looked at some of these key recommendations:

  • Setting a limit of four, two-year terms, on members of the County Council. That means a council member could remain in office for no more than eight consecutive years;
  • Allowing a council member to serve no more than 10 years. Setting term limits is a way to boot out unproductive legislators and to bring in “new blood,” Abrams said. “As elected leaders stay in longer, they tend to understand or work with the charter differently,” Abrams said. “And some people think incumbents have a distinct advantage over new blood. And the idea is to bring in new blood;”
  • Related to districting, having three council members elected by district, using state House of Representatives’ boundaries, and having four council members elected at large. Currently, council members are elected at large every two years. The idea of district elections came up in 1982, and failed. That ballot measure proposal was approved by voters in 1990, Abrams said, but was invalidated by a judge over the objections of residents. The districting proposal was rejected in 1996 as well, he said. For this election year, the story could change, he said. “It appears to me that districting appeared at the top of the list for voters,” Abrams said. With district-based legislators comes better accountability to constituents, he said. “I have been contacted by people from the Westside, that this (having a council member represent the Westside) is important with them, particularly with solid waste and other things on the top of their minds,” Abrams said. Some Kekaha residents no longer want the Kekaha Landfill in their neighborhood, and want to see it closed and another landfill opened up elsewhere on the island. They contend the mountains of compressed soil, in which tons of garbage are compressed, are an eyesore. Residents also don’t like the smell of the garbage;
  • Changing the council term of office from two to four years;
  • Setting a three-term limit for a total of 12 years;
  • Having all council members become full-time, and prohibiting them from working at other jobs;
  • With the exception of investigations, the council members should be barred from interfering with the day-to-day operation of the Kaua’i County Office of the Prosecuting Attorney.

Related to the powers of the executive branch, the commissioners looked at proposals that would:

  • Include a whistleblower-protection provision;
  • Delineate the jurisdiction of the mayor and the Kaua’i Police Commission over the activities of the police chief;
  • Determine whether a new department director would appoint the deputy police chief.

The work of the commission amounts to a “unique time in the (county) charter’s history,” Abrams said.

“We are the fourth charter commission in the history of the county,” he said.

The charter was adopted by Kaua’i residents in 1968, and became effective Jan. 2, 1969.

Morris S. Shinsato, the Kaua’i county attorney from 1972 to 1982, played a major role in creating the document, which is the constitution of the county.

Subsequently, members of the first charter commission, headed by Clinton Shiraishi, a prominent Kaua’i attorney, initially met in 1974.

Over the past year, commission members have met with residents and county department heads in drafting charter-amendment proposals.

The commission members are is scheduled to hold “community meetings” on April 3 at the Kilauea Neighborhood Center, on April 12 at the Hanapepe Recreation Center, and on April 24 at Kapa’a Middle School. All the meetings are scheduled at 6:30 p.m.

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