During the now nearly 30 years I have lived on this island, it has been a matter of considerable interest, some amusement and some sadness to observe the machinations of our local government, particularly our county council.
Under the Kauai Charter, the council consists of seven members elected at large for two-year terms by Kauai voters. Their primary mission is to enact ordinances, including the annual budget ordinances, which serve Kauai and its people. The composition of the council is remarkably stable — incumbents are typically reelected. In the past 30 years, there have been only six council chairs. One of them, Ron Kouchi, served for 12 years. The council processes with reasonable efficiency most of the routine matters before it, often by unanimous vote. But more complex matters do arise that necessitate thoughtful handling.
A central element of my consideration of the council work has been to examine the motivating factors which influence the measures adopted by the council. A rather common one is that politicians tend to be favorably inclined toward those who contribute to their campaigns. On Kauai, that has resulted in quite good treatment for large landowners and developers who have been generous in their largesse. This phenomenon seems an almost inevitable part of the political process. A more elusive and more disturbing criteria has been the leaning toward accommodation of the county administration and the mayor.
This factor was demonstrated quite clearly about 10 years ago when the voters of the county adopted a real property tax charter amendment to limit tax obligations for resident home owners. The measure was passed with about two thirds of the voters favoring it, but the council deserted the clearly expressed will of the people and supported litigation initiated by the mayor to invalidate the amendment.
A couple of more recent illustrations of this predilection are the budget maneuverings related to the County Auditor and Resolution 2013-55 relating to claimed failures to act by the Planning Department in regard to Transient Vacation Rental properties.
In the case of the auditor, it is evident that the audits made touched a sensitive nerve in the administration, so despite the fact that the auditor does not report to him, the mayor made a significant reduction in the 2014 auditor budget in his proposed budget to the council, and the council made a further reduction resulting in an allowed budget which cripples the auditor’s performance capability. The people were being well served by the auditor’s work, but the administration did not like the examination of its functions. The council sided with the mayor and not the people.
Similarly in the case of the resolution. A number of instances were identified where the Planning Department had failed to meet legal requirements as to permitting and operations of transient vacation rentals in the county. The director and staff of the Planning Department consistently avoided or evaded inquiries by the council, so two members of the council introduced a resolution seeking to use Section 3.17 of the Charter (a provision granting the council or some of them the right to subpoena records and conduct depositions of persons involved) to get answers as to the applicable circumstances.
Similar provisions are regularly used elsewhere, but this council has never employed 3.17. Despite the clear provocation, the council deferred the implementation of the Section 3.17 powers ostensibly to permit an explanation by the department which to date has not been forthcoming. Appropriate factual discovery has been delayed and frustrated and apparent violations are continuing. The council deference to the administration seems unwarranted.
Another illustration of the council’s tendency to avoid action of potential benefit to the people of the island when it might adversely affect the interests of the mayor occurs in the case of efforts made to have a voter consideration of use of a county manager system of government for the county.
Such a system is in use across America in about half the communities generally comparable to Kauai County and is generally well regarded. This program entails the appointment of a county manager to have responsibility for execution of the various county administrative functions. In most of its configurations the mayor becomes a member of the council (usually its chair) and has no or limited administrative duties. Because the system removes most of the mayor’s powers it is vigorously opposed by the mayoral incumbent. On the other hand, the powers of the council are enhanced because the manager will report to them.
You would think that the council members should actively embrace the notion of allowing county voters to be able to decide whether they want such a system. But the council members seem intimidated by the mayoral disapproval and have not responded favorable to the introduction of this concept.
I invite public consideration of the mentioned and other indications of a council attitude that may supplant the proper purpose for the council to serve the interests of its people when mayoral displeasure arises.
In my view, the protection of the people and their rights should always be supreme and they should not founder because of potential conflicts with inconsistent mayoral views.
Walter Lewis writes a bi-weekly column for The Garden Island.