The overwhelming majority of our citizens enjoy the rural nature of our island and want to maintain the undeveloped areas and to stop urban sprawl. The General Plan adopted in 2000 contained some fine provisions for protecting Kaua‘i’s rural character and controlling growth, which reflected this perception and specified a limit amounting to an annual rate of about 1.5 percent for increases in living accommodations for tourists.
However, neither the administration nor the council seemed to be listening. Developments mushroomed. On our South Shore earlier this year there were 11 projects with eight separate developers creating volumes of dust and transforming a peaceful community into a resort luxury home area.
The mayor made some halfhearted efforts to mitigate public concern by noting that much of the development arose from approvals granted before the mid-1980s and offered but did not pursue a porous bill to have a moratorium on developments on agricultural zoned land. The council watched helplessly but was preoccupied with its agenda on the east sidewalk, bike or dog path and vacation rentals.
Recognizing the yawning abyss of governmental inattention, a citizen group has recently circulated a petition for a charter amendment to place the County Council with responsibility for developments relating to tourists. It appears that sufficient voter signatures have been obtained so that the proposal will be on the ballot this November.
In 2002 property taxes for residents were beginning to skyrocket, and a group of citizens was appointed by the mayor to recommend reformations in our property tax system. After nine months of deliberations they offered their thoughtful proposals, which were totally ignored by our County Council. Being aware that the council was unlikely to come to the aid of homeowners, in 2004 the ‘Ohana Kauai group solicited and obtained signatures of residents to offer a charter amendment that would stabilize property tax costs for resident owners. The measure was adopted with a nearly two-thirds vote of citizens. County officials decided they did not want tax laws to be made by citizen initiatives and, despite the clear approval given by the vote, commenced a lawsuit challenging the measure and indirectly their own citizens.
As provided in the County Charter, in 2005 a Charter Review Commission was appointed to consider potential measures for improving the operation of our county government. Two of the most popular proposals offered for review by the commission were one to change the present strong mayor-council system of government to a county manager system and another to put a limit on county government spending. Both proposals were disfavored by county officials and neither was allowed to be placed on the ballot for vote by our citizens. The county manager system was again proposed to the 2008 Charter Commission, but the same opposition is striving to doom its inclusion on the 2008 ballot.
State policy expressed in the Sunshine Law mandates that meetings of county agencies be conducted as openly as possible to protect the people’s right to know. A limited exception is provided to allow executive sessions to be held in certain circumstances. Beginning in 2002 the County Council greatly increased the number and scope of the executive or secret meetings it held. For over a year now a few citizens have questioned the legality of the practices of the County Council in having its secret meetings and have cited the legal provisions they believe the council is evading or ignoring. The council has made no effort to confront the points the citizens make and is essentially stonewalling their concerns.
The Kauai Charter requires the annual county budget to be balanced. Such a provision usually means that planned expenditures may not exceed revenues. But it also means that planned revenues may not exceed expenditures. At year end, 2007, Kaua‘i had a $48 million unrestricted surplus. In other words Kaua‘i has overtaxed its citizens. Taxes are necessary. But why should we be overtaxed?
In a similar vein KIUC, the electric utility for our island that is owned by the people and presumably operated for their benefit, is persisting on a course that defies the wishes of its members. The effect of the fossil fuel source for our power is devastating with its ever increasing cost. But the elected leaders of KIUC are essentially disregarding the call for alternative energy and offer tamely a program to make some changes at the back end of a 15-year period.
The theme that is present in each of the topics mentioned is that citizens who care about county governmental affairs make it very clear what they want our county and KIUC officials to do, but their voices are not being heard. Or worse they are heard but they are being ignored. The essence of representative government is for the elected officials to carry out the will and purposes of the electorate. Such a government obviously does not exist on Kaua‘i.
The matters mentioned illustrate the serious flaw in representative government. What do people do when their elected representatives fail to act in accordance with their constituents’ wishes? In most places citizens have petition rights, but in Hawai‘i at the state level they do not exist, and on Kaua‘i only the charter amendment is in practice available.
It is often said that the public deserves the government that they get. The roots of the failures of our government lie in the lethargic nature of our electorate. Many of our voters believe their civic duties are complete when at each election they routinely re-elect council members, KIUC directors and mayors who have failed to serve our citizens best interests but whose names they recognize. Sadly, it appears that until we all bestir ourselves to examine the quality of service our officials are providing, communicate our views and make informed decisions to have necessary changes and replacements, we will be condemned to continue to encounter the type of problems discussed.
• Walter Lewis is a resident of Princeville and writes a bi-weekly column for The Garden Island.