The Kauai County Charter provides for a seven-member Charter Commission. The current commission has a 10-year term and is serving until 2017.
Although the Charter states that amendments to it may only be initiated by citizen petition and by the county council, in seeming contradiction it also authorizes the Charter Commission to propose changes as it may deem necessary or desirable.
The Commission has two major constraints. First, although the Charter specifies that the Commission is to study and review the operation of the county government, in fact, it has never done so. In consequence, the Commission is seemingly blind to the instances of ineptitude, inefficiency and corruption and the inability to control expenditures that have plagued our administration and council. Second, the Commission members are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council. This circumstance has resulted in the the fact that the Commission has been reluctant to consider and never has approved any measure not viewed with favor by the mayor or the council.
An effect of the constraints mentioned is that the Commission has during its tenure proposed only measures for Charter amendment of minor importance. It has discarded or mishandled two issues of great significance.
Beginning in 2005, the Commission received citizen requests that it consider a Charter amendment that would provide for a county manager-council form of government for Kauai. The present Commission had considerable difficulty even scheduling the subject on its agendas, but because of the perseverance of one member, it finally did. The mayor was vigorously opposed to the manager concept and when the Commission held regional meetings on the subject, they were attended by a swarm of county employees who expressed objections to it and who overrode the private citizens favorable testimony. After this tutelage, the Commission backed away from further consideration or submission of the proposal, saying that the citizens did not seem ready for it. So our voters were never given the chance to decide this important question.
Another meaningful issue is the question of how we elect our council members. At present, all are elected at-large. For many years following a bungled effort to allow Kauai’s voters to consider two alternative proposals, it has been known that a majority of our people would prefer a method that would allow them to elect council members by district. But there has been a divergence of view as to whether all council members should be elected by district or just some majority of them. Our council members prefer the existing arrangement and made their views known to the Commission. Although the issue was entertained by the Commission this year, it chose not to offer any proposal to the voters. One Commission member offered the comment that no specific proposal “rose to the top” so none was advanced. The position was comparable to having two effective vaccines to prevent a disease and have the government say it would approve neither because it could not decide which is best. This kind of dereliction does not serve the interests of the people.
Sadly, the orientation of the Commission appears to be to serve our government officials rather than serving the interests of our citizens. An illustration of this predilection is the matter considered at last month’s meeting of the Commission. The Charter currently provides that citizens petitions for initiatives, referendums and recall require signatures of 20 percent of our registered voters, while citizens petitions for charter amendments only require signatures of 5 percent of registered voters. A Commission member advanced the notion that all should be the same, and revisited the previously voter rejection of increasing the percentage requirement for Charter amendments to 20 percent. Such a change would effectively eliminate any reasonable prospect for a charter amendment petition. After a storm of testimony opposing such a change and suggesting instead that the percentages for initiative, referendum and recall petitions be reduced, the Commission deferred action on but did not cancel the Commission member’s proposal. Obviously, our government officials would prefer to be comfortable that their regime would be unchanged, do not want to be troubled by the voice of the public and would like the Commission to protect them.
In a democracy, the public should be entitled to seek changes when elected officials can’t or won’t proceed on them. Having a Charter Commission to consider measures that would enable such changes could be a valuable vehicle for this objective, but when this vehicle is impaired by officials who exercise a veto power on the public will, the interests of our citizens are not served.
• Walter Lewis is a retired attorney and Lihue resident who writes a regular column for The Garden Island.