With respect to a county manager system, the first question is not whether the county should adopt such a system but whether the voters should have a chance to express their will at the ballot box, preferably after hearing the full range of evidence and argument.
The Charter Commission is the only practical route for placing a county manager proposal on the ballot and providing the relevant information, and the only practical avenue for voters to request/demand the right to vote on the matter.
The commission holds an enormous negative power. It can deprive the voters of a basic right simply by withholding a proposal from the ballot, in effect making a decision for the voters, without having to justify the decision.
On the other side of the coin, the commission can place an item on the ballot even if all the entrenched powers oppose the decision. Working together, the commission and the voters can effect necessary or desirable changes through appropriate charter amendments in a process lying beyond the direct control of elected officials.
The awareness that major changes can occur against their will seems to drive the tactics employed by entrenched powers to ensure that the voters are denied the right to vote on a county manager proposal. . There’s nothing wrong with opposing an idea, but it is a breach of the public trust to deprive the voters of a chance to express their will on governance issues. Reality-based arguments in favor of retaining our council/mayor system are in short supply, so vested interests resort to tactics rather than open public debate.
By virtue of the powers of his office, both legal and extralegal, the mayor can frustrate the voters in a variety of ways. Through his choice of Charter Commission members he can virtually assure that the commission will slight both its mandate and the testimony it receives from the public and will favor the voices of authority that have a vested interest in the status quo.
The mayor can procrastinate on appointments and a start-up date, as happened with the last commission, which started work a year late after commissioners were left to cool their heels for seven months following their delayed appointment. Through his staff he can distract the commission from its task, as happened for example when the last commission was forced to work out a contract with Ho’ike community television to air its sessions and to clear its plans with ADA—tasks that should have been handled routinely by the administration.
Within the commission, the “safe” appointees can easily override members who show a populist tendency. For example, the last commission initially classified the idea of a county manager as uniquely important and requiring much additional information. Some members promptly saw to it that the primary “evidence” consisted of a bogus attack on the county manager idea by linking it to a scandal in San Diego that occurred contemporaneously with the city’s adoption of a mayoral system in place of a county manager system. The situation had no bearing on the merits or demerits of the idea for Kaua’i County.
It is perhaps a sign of things to come that a potential mayoral wannabe, now sitting in a position of authority on the council, recently invoked the San Diego scandal in the course of taking an irrelevant and gratuitous jab at the county manager idea on the council floor.
I believe that these kinds of tactics are not worthy of the office of mayor, councilmember, or commission member. At bottom, they represent an assault on the sovereignty of the people and the principle of open debate undergirding our constitutional democracy.
• Horace Stoessel is a resident of Kapa‘a and contributes regularly to the Forum page.