Every citizen should observe the use of the processes of government by county officials and the performance of elected representatives with a view to evaluating the quality of their governance. It is to be regretted that too many of us do not have the time or the inclination to monitor actively the functioning of our governmental machinery.
We are now at the threshold of the new office terms of our mayor and our council. In the six years since the beginning of this century we have seen government costs soar by more than 70 percent, far more than the rise in population or the effect of inflation. Have we had an improvement in government services commensurate with such an increase?
Let me offer some of my observations.
Our mayoral system is semi-archaic. The majority of governmental bodies of similar size to Kaua‘i now enjoy the manager system and the trend is unmistakably in that direction. For me the merits of the respective systems can be compared by answering the question: Who would you choose to manage the affairs of your community, a person trained to be an administrator of these matters or an elected politician who would typically be without experience in the direction of the various matters under his responsibility? With the current mayor in his final term and a newly approved charter review commission to be formed it may be that a proposal for a manager system will be generated for voter consideration next year.
At the last election we reelected all but one of the six incumbent candidates and the new council has named as its chair the same person who has been in that position for the past four years. Although our voters recently adopted a measure indicating that they would like to limit consecutive service on the council to eight years, the continuing chair has already served 22. The justification for the limit enacted may be apparent when we reflect that as chair this cantankerous gentleman convened executive sessions at nearly three-times the prior rate, manipulated council agendas in ways which reduced public participation, was rude to witnesses appearing before the council and on more than one occasion this year gave a power point presentation containing unjustified statements.
The council being empowered to make, repeal or amend our laws is the most important of our governmental bodies. But in recent years it has been largely ineffectual. Critical issues remain unresolved. We have no satisfactory answers to our solid waste disposal needs, developments have occurred that offend our sensibilities and no restraints are in place to prevent future recurrences, traffic problems are unmet, the property tax system needs a thorough overhaul — the list could go on.
Council meetings are unduly long with contents that are inadequately controlled. Much of the council’s time is wasted on matters of secondary importance and there is limited focus on the items that matter most.
To illustrate, the council has devoted endless hours to consideration of the proposed Eastside bike path, which will not perceptibly improve our traffic conditions, but has failed to even hold a public hearing on the recommendations by the Real Property Tax Task Force on the badly needed reformation of our laws for the county’s principal source of revenue.
The concerns mentioned led me to conclude that our island would be better served and the quality of its governance would have been improved by the election of some new councilmembers. I am apparently in the minority in these views, as despite vigorous campaign cries from responsible candidates for a change in the composition of the council, they were largely ignored by the voters who seemed either unaware of the deficiencies noted or devoted to their culture of maintaining in office the incumbents with familiar names.
The reality is that we have the council we elected. If we are to have a better Kaua‘i it is vital that our newly elected council direct its attention to the major problems of our society and find constructive solutions to them. There is no magic way to achieve this result. But our citizens must decisively deliver to councilmembers the message that they should focus their efforts on the crucial issues confronting us, such as control of development, reform of property taxes and solving our traffic problems instead of time-consuming diversions such as the bike path.
Let us hope that the newly elected council can be persuaded to recognize that its prime function is to serve the requirements of its constituents and direct its endeavors to the important issues confronting us.
• Walter Lewis is a resident of Princeville and writes a bi-weekly column for The Garden Island.