A Better Kaua‘i: Whose authority is it?

All persons elected as executives to public office in our country swear to uphold the founding document of their authority — for our president it is the Constitution of the United States, and for our mayor it is the Charter of the County of Kaua‘i. Despite the power of the office given them a temptation to seek to expand its boundaries exists. Some resist the temptation, others do not.

Our country is currently facing what is called “the fiscal cliff.” It arose when neither the administration nor the Congress could reach consensual agreement on the course of action as to the federal deficits being incurred. And a draconian enactment was made, which imposed revenue increases and spending reductions that were disfavored by all in the hopes that a later effort to deal with deficits could be more successful.

Our recently re-elected president, buoyed by his success, has now offered an outline of his position for a measure to avoid the implementation of the “fiscal cliff” enactment. Among his proposals included is a request for Congress to cede to him the power to determine unilaterally the “debt ceiling limit,” a limit on the amount of debt it would be permissible for the nation to have. Most likely he sincerely believes that such a change would be beneficial for the country. But under our Constitution initiation and control of revenue and expenditure matters is clearly the domain of the Congress. Implementation of the proposal would be inconsistent with Constitutional terms. It is not upholding the Constitution to seek powers it gives to others.

On our island there are obvious indications that the mayor is restless about the provisions of the Kaua‘i Charter that serve to restrict or control the powers of his office. Perhaps the most apparent instance was the action taken by the mayor in February of this year to discipline the Chief of Police.

The mayor must have considered it a slam dunk. After all he is under the Charter the “chief executive officer of the county.” However, the Police Commission along with several other Commissions were established to supervise the administration of their function. The Police Commission  has the power to appoint and remove the chief and it logically should have the related power to discipline him if necessary. The dispute is now in litigation. The recent decision by the Commission to appeal a trial court ruling favoring the mayor was met with his scornful displeasure. It is evident that he takes his aspirations to expand his powers seriously.

Under the Kaua‘i Charter the Kaua‘i County Council is given the legislative power of the county. In the case of the mayor his executive powers are limited by the Charter in several specific instances, but in the case of the council its legislative powers are not similarly limited. However, the council has become submissive. No provision of the Charter authorizes the mayor to initiate proposals for legislation, but he does so frequently and the council often meekly accepts the proposals made. Most of the ordinances adopted with regard to our property taxes have originated directly or indirectly from the mayor. In his annual budget submittal the mayor routinely offers proposed property tax rates, a function generally considered to be a sacrosanct part of the council’s duty under the charter to “provide sufficient revenues to assure a balanced budget.”

Other illustrations of the mayor’s disposition to protect his turf and expand his domain would include his apparent direction of the County Attorney’s office to find interpretations of the law that serve his purposes. One such case was the well known defective opinion challenging the legality of the county manager system. Depriving people of the right to choose the government they want is not upholding the Charter.

History is replete with instances of those who are at the head of governments entrusted with positions of power who reach for higher authority. That reality was a principal factor that cause the framers of our Federal Constitution as well as the authors of our County Charter to carefully consider and to limit the powers granted to the chief executive. It certainly can well be argued that the authority given to the legislative branch is not efficiently used, but the boundaries on executive power are an important safeguard against the abuses that can arise from an uncontrolled executive.

We should follow with interest the outcome of the case involving the attempt by the mayor to exercise authority by disciplining an employee, the Chief of Police, serving in a position under the direction of a county commission. It is not responsible to attempt to predict the outcome of the case, but it seems clear that from an organizational viewpoint the disciplinary power should reside with the party having the direct supervisory authority and the power to hire and fire — in this instance the Police Commission. Any other arrangement would be disruptive. It is to be hoped that the appellate court will understand this valuable principle.

• Walter Lewis is a resident of Princeville and writes a biweekly column for The Garden Island.


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