A group of Kauai citizens is currently seeking County Council action to place a proposal on the 2016 ballot to change our county’s governing structure to a council-manager system and replace the mayor-council system now in effect.
The principal difference in the two systems is having a county manager who is appointed by the council and who must have educational training and hands on experience in municipal government instead of having a mayor who is elected and who must meet the requirements of being 30 years of age and a county resident. The county manager would be the county’s chief executive officer and would have the power now exercised by the mayor to administer and direct county operations.
Council-manager systems are increasingly popular and are now being used in the majority of cities and counties across our nation comparable to Kauai.
The provisions of a council-manager system are not rigid. For each system tailoring can be used to select many choices preferred by the particular community.
Recently, the group contacted a council member who advised he was generally receptive to the council-manager system, but had some questions about its details. He noted that Kauai has a number of boards and commissions and asked the intelligent question as to who, under the manager system, would appoint the commissioners. The answer is that if the council offers a proposal to the voters that decision will be made by the council in drafting the proposal. The appointing party could be either the council or the manager (or the manager with the consent of the council) depending on what the council prefers.
Another similar choice relates to the authority to hire or fire the police and fire chiefs and the planning director. Here again the council would, subject to state law requirements, make whatever choice in writing the proposal it believed would best serve Kauai.
An additional important subject for council determination is the matter of what, if any, role would be given to the mayor. At present the mayor is elected by popular vote to be the county’s chief executive officer. While that authority would be changed, it is quite common in council-manager systems to provide for the continued election of the mayor to become a member of the council. In some cases the mayor would be the chair of the council. It is also frequently provided that the mayor would have ceremonial powers representing the county and also be the county’s representative in intergovernmental matters. There is also the question whether the mayor would continue to have a four-year term. In some instances the mayoral office is eliminated. A council decision is required.
There are other determinations which need to be made by the council. They include the educational and experience requirements for the manager, and setting the salary limits and terms of employment for the manager.
One key question that needs to be addressed relates to the legality of the change to a council-manager system. While Hawaii state law provides that each county may establish the form of government it deems advisable, provided that no state law is violated, it would be strongly desirable to obtain an opinion from the Hawaii attorney general as to the legality of the proposal being made.
However, the important point to remember is that the council would have the opportunity and the duty to resolve the incidental details noted (and others) before it submits any proposal for voter action.
The citizen group supporting the adoption of a council-manager system should encourage the council to place on its agenda the matter of consideration of the various details required to implement the system and to invite public input to aid in the making of the necessary decisions. The County Council should receive input from all to assure the best possible determinations.
It should be a matter of vital importance for all of us to allow the county voters to determine whether Kauai should be able to enjoy the system which demonstrably could achieve marked improvement in the quality and integrity of our county’s governmental processes and would go a long way toward eliminating the cronyism and political patronage now existing.
Walter Lewis is a retired attorney who lives on Kauai and writes a regular column for The Garden Island.