Tweaking the charter

LIHUE — Voters on Kauai and Niihau will have three opportunities in the general election to amend sections within the Kauai County Charter, the county’s governing document. 

“It’s like the constitution of the county — in my perspective, it’s just as important as the Constitution of the United States, but it deals specifically with our island,” said Ed Justus, who sits on the Charter Review Commission, which approved the three charter amendment questions that will appear on this year’s general election ballot. “It is the very document that makes our government function, so when people go to vote for a charter amendment, you’re amending the constitution of the county. It’s a big deal and it’s important.”

Though the seven-member county board considered a wide range of amendments throughout the year, including two controversial ones to lower the amount of signatures needed to place referendums and initiatives on the ballot, and change the way Kauai County Councilmembers are elected through redistricting, some county officials say most of the amendments codify or improve current practices. 

“In a sense, they’re all housekeeping items,” Justus said. “These are just, in our view, absolutely necessary and desirable.”

Election Day is Tuesday. Here is a breakdown of the three charter amendments that voters will see: 

Creating the Department of Human Resources

Among the more substantial changes that county voters will consider is a proposal to rename the Department of Personnel Services, which is tasked with auditing personnel transactions, classifying positions, recruiting qualified applicants, handling labor relations matters, and advising departments on civil service laws, rules and regulations.

If approved, the charter amendment would change the department’s name to the Department of Human Resources and provide it with a number of responsibilities under a human resources management program, including workers’ compensation; equal employment opportunities; workforce coordination and planning; and classifying, recruiting, selecting, employing, deploying, promoting, evaluating, disciplining, and separating employees.

“The consolidation of employees from different departments that were doing HR (human resource) functions was completed over a year ago, and this is merely a name change to better describe the current function of the department,” County Boards and Commissions Administrator Paula Morikami wrote in an email. 

No immediate or long-term costs, including employee salaries, would be incurred by the proposed changes, Morikami said. 

Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr., who is up for re-election this year, said his administration has made it a priority to revamp the Department of Personnel Services. The restructured Department of Human Resources, he said, will help the county avoid future litigation cases, including those involving employee misconduct, while providing training and advancement opportunities for current employees.

“It would actually be the heartbeat of our county, because it’s where the new employees come into our department, and the existing employees get opportunities for more training and movement, so there’s this whole shifting on thinking and how to ring in the new and get them excited about government and then look what we have internally and give opportunities,” Carvalho said in a The Garden Island interview earlier this month. “I felt that, once we start doing that and get more attention, there will be a better attitude to the people.”

Kauai County Councilman Ross Kagawa, who is also up for re-election this year, disagreed and said the mayor’s administration can reduce future liabilities by following some business practices used in the private sector, such as establishing clear and robust consequences for mismanagement or recurring mistakes.  

Kagawa said he wasn’t in favor of the proposal and worried that future costs may be incurred by the changes.  

“I believe that some of the mistakes that are made are preventable, so when these mistakes are made by managers, there must be consequences for these managers for messing up or handling cases inappropriately,” Kagawa said. “You can have all the training you want, but because there are no consequences when managers screw up or make mistakes, where we’re punishing them with leave without pay, firing, or terminating them when mistakes are made, then you’re never going to fix the problem.”

Publication of charter amendments 

Under the current County Charter, the entire text of proposed or approved amendments to it must be published in a newspaper of general circulation in the county.

The problem, however, is that there are no other alternatives, which can makes it cumbersome and costly to follow, especially when a substantial number of changes, or a new charter, is drawn up, Justus said.

It’s an issue that, he noted, is quickly approaching as the commission makes a number of non-substantive changes throughout the County Charter, such as spelling and grammar errors and inserting gender-neutral language, that will be presented to voters in the 2016 general election.

“If there’s a really long amendment that requires, let’s say, a few pages or a page to print, you’re talking thousands of dollars out of the county budget to print them,” Justus said.

But that could change, he said, if voters approve a charter amendment on the general election ballot that would allow the county to publish summaries, rather than the full text, of charter amendments or a new charter in the newspaper and publish the entire text electronically on the official County of Kauai website. 

If the proposed charter amendment passes, Morikami said it would save the county between $35,000 to $50,000 in 2016, since it would not have to publish the entire charter with all of the proposed non-substantive changes in the newspaper. 

Format for recall election

The final charter amendment that voters will consider is one that would allow the county to comply with state elections laws during recall elections. 

The current County Charter requires that voting targets — the spaces where voters mark their ballots — be placed “to the right of the proposition” during a recall election. State law, however, requires the spaces meet requirements of the voting system in use, which may not always allow for the voting targets to be placed in a specific place. 

“It’s just something that needed to be adjusted,” Justus said. “It’s just housekeeping.”

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