A Better Kaua‘i: Regarding council powers

In a recent article I noted the mayor’s predilection to expand the role of his office and mentioned the Kaua‘i County Council’s rather passive submission to the invasion of the powers entrusted to it under the Charter. In this piece some illustrations of these circumstances will be given and their ramifications considered.

 The Kaua‘i General Plan adopted in 2000 contained expressions of policy designed to limit the rate of increase in non-resident accommodations on our island. At that time there were less than 9,000 transient accommodation units on our island. After the plan’s guidance was ignored by the Planning Commission, which granted approvals for one or more steps in the chain required for full approval to over 3,000 additional units, in 2008 the Kaua‘i voters approved a citizen sponsored charter amendment to transfer the authority to approve transient accommodations to the county council.

The amendment also allowed the council to restore by ordinance the authority to the commission if it would respect the plan guidelines. In late 2011, after a three year hiatus, the council enacted Ordinance 912, which purported to exercise the authority to transfer back. The ordinance “solved” the problem of the projects with preliminary approvals by granting them exemption from the application of the rate limit.

The legality of the ordinance is highly questionable, but the council faced a dilemma. The project developers were threatening legal action if those who had invested money in their projects did not get exempted and they had the means and the muscle to pursue it, while the sponsors of the amendment appeared to lack effective clout.

The council clearly could have kept the authority but obviously they did not want to have to deal with processing transient accommodation project approvals, so they waffled and passed an ordinance with king-sized defects. Where has legislative integrity and responsibility gone?

Probably too much has already been said about the Eastside multi-use path, but it is a classic case of misuse of legislative power. It has been a work in progress now for over ten years. Its problems are so vast it is difficult to decide where to start to discuss them.

Contrary to other capital projects, the path never had a clear plan or a budget. Capitalizing on the availability of Federal Transportation funds to pay the bulk of the construction costs county officials disguised what is really a recreational facility as one meeting transportation needs.

While it appears that federal officials were complicit in the swindle, the county has obtained by dubious means very substantial sums of federal money. No doubt our officials are proud of the contribution they have made to the $16 trillion of debt our nation now has.

The less than 7 miles of path that has been completed of the project’s proposed 22-mile length provides attractive vistas for the limited number of Eastside residents that from time to time use the path. This no doubt brings happiness to the six council members who live on the Eastside and can vicariously enjoy their neighbor’s pleasure in having the path.

But where are the North Shore, South Shore and Westside paths or other equivalent projects? Governmental largess has been very unevenly bestowed. We must recognize that no definitive accounting has ever been given for the costs of the completed portion of the path, a shameful disregard of the rights of our citizens to know how our government expends taxpayer funds, and the future costs for a completion of the path remain obscure. To add a discussion of the Kilauea gym, another huge illustration of council mismanagement, would be gilding the lily.

 All legislative proposals arising from the administration, its departments and commissions, should be assumed to have the approval, tacit or otherwise, from the mayor. Property tax law measures are often so given to the council. In August this year, the council introduced Bill 2444 that had so originated to amend the property tax law by increasing the minimum annual tax payable from $25 to $150. Its revenue effect would be quite modest.

Isn’t it anomalous that in Washington our president proposed to raise the tax rate for persons with the highest incomes about 12 percent while on Kaua‘i our mayor is seeking to raise the tax for properties with the lowest value by 500 percent?

At its December 12 committee meeting, the council showed a spark of the qualities it should have by voting to receive, i.e. cancel the bill instead of its more frequent passive acceptance of mayoral proposals. Perhaps that is a modest onset of some independence. The budget proceedings will be a more rigorous test. So will the failure of the council to follow up when the mayor or administration managers are asked to appear before the council and they fail to do so or are ill prepared on the subject of the request.

I believe the members of the council are all good people but subservience, lack of technical assistance, inadequate legal advice and some fiscal irresponsibility have too frequently flawed their collective work. It is vital for our county that the county council should be a thoughtful independent legislative body free from undue influence by the administration or any party or bloc. That has not always been the case in the past but it is a goal that is unassailable.

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


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