Kauai is governed under a mayor-council system. The Kauai County Charter provides that the executive power of the county is vested in the administration headed by the mayor and that the legislative power is vested in the council.
The charter also provides that the council shall not interfere with the administrative processes delegated to the mayor. No similar provision restricts the mayor from interfering with the legislative processes of the council.
The mayor is empowered in two respects as to legislative matters. He is granted veto power and the right to propose the annual budget. Despite these exceptions, however, the council has the ultimate legislative authority.
Under our system, an ongoing problem exists as to the proper role of the administration in seeking to influence policy issues in the proposed ordinances being considered by the council.
The disruptive problem arises when our mayors, in addition to implementing existing laws, believe their image will be enhanced if they also advocate changes. It is not reasonably objectionable if the administration, in the course of performing its function, observes instances where it believes conditions could be improved and so advises the council with or without administration recommendations. But when the administration seeks to influence policy as to matters tangential to their duties, difficulties ensue.
Let us look at some recent illustrations.
After lengthy and thoughtful deliberation, the council adopted Ordinance 960 dealing with GMOs and pesticides. While acknowledging that there were no major administrative issues, the mayor not only exercised his veto power with a stinging message, he brought out his surrogate, the county attorney, to issue an opinion adverse to the measure. While many supported the mayor’s view, his activism went clearly beyond the role contemplated by the charter.
Last year, the council rather peremptorily changed the real property tax law affecting our resident homeowners by repealing the PHU cap that had limited annual tax increases and adopted greatly increased exemptions. These changes materially and adversely affected many taxpayers and considerable protest arose. In August, the council held a workshop to hear community views primarily about restoration of the cap. Unknown to most citizens, the council stage managed the session by inviting the finance director to make a presentation on the matter. While citizen testimony was limited to the usual three minutes, there was no time limit on the administration’s display. In my view, although the administration has a legitimate concern about the aggregate amount of revenue that may be forthcoming from real property taxes, how such amount is allocated among taxpayers is a policy issue that should be resolved without administration interference. But the finance department authored a 19-page paper that was clearly oriented in opposition to restoring the cap. It seems to me that both the council and the finance department misperformed in this episode — the council by issuing an overly broad invitation and the administration for a grossly partisan presentation.
Last month, councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura proposed a resolution seeking a 3/4 percent increase in the state excise tax to finance a broad expansion of county bus services she wanted. The mayor publicly responded with his disapproval of the financing sought by Ms. Yukimura. I do not see any valid connection between the mayor’s duties and his comments about a legislative policy issue.
The mayoral propensity to expand the scope of his function is an understandable political gambit, but it is a distortion of the balance that should exist between our legislative and our executive branches. In the property tax matter, a member of the administration argued that partisanship was appropriate as his office had an expertise from administering the tax while some councilmembers did not have adequate comprehension of the issues. Although our councilmembers may lack a background on the issues and should seek guidance, the administration of the tax does not confer expertise as to tax policy, merely skill on the technical aspects. The presentation should be recognized for what it was — undue influence.
While legislation limiting mayoral power might be appropriate, probably the best solution for the issues above presented best lies in the adoption of a form of government which will minimize conflict between the council and the administration — the manager-council system of government. Under this system, the manager is appointed by council and the distinctions between the respective zones of authority are better controlled.
Walter Lewis is a retired attorney who lives on Kauai and writes a regular column for The Garden Island.