Time for closer look at council-manager system

At its June 17 meeting, the Kauai County Council considered the formation of a council member subcommittee to investigate the costs and benefits of a county adoption of a council-manager (CM) system of government. Although no formal determination was made, it appeared that the council members were generally supportive of such an action.

The basic change from Kauai’s present system that would be made by the CM system is that the chief executive of the county would be a professionally educated and trained manager appointed by and serving at the pleasure of the council instead of being a popularly elected mayor.

CM systems exist in about half of the communities of our country similar to Kauai. And they are found in all except two or three states. Proponents of the CM system stress several key features. First, is the cost efficiency importance of having a qualified executive managing county operations. Under an appointed manager, department heads would be chosen for merit rather than the case in the mayoral system now in effect here, where sometimes the selection is made for patronage reasons. Second, the avoidance of the now almost continuous finger pointing between and council and the administration. The array extending over a good number of years of unsolved matters is impressive. And third, the accountability arising from the direct line of responsibility.

If the CM system were adopted here it would be the first time in Hawaii. A contention made by some opponents of the CM system is that it could be illegal in Hawaii. Common sense would indicate otherwise as it is accepted in nearly all of the other states. The Hawaiian constitution and laws do not appear to present any hurdles as they both authorize the county to frame and adopt a charter for its own self government including the method of appointing or electing its officials and setting their duties and compensation.

However, in a 2009 strangely hybrid opinion and commentary that was most likely politically motivated, the Kauai County attorney office claimed that the constitutional phrase regarding the establishment of an “executive’s, administrative and legislative structure” requires separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches.

This construction is highly tenuous as there is nothing in the phrase that would suggest that the conclusion reached was intended. The political direction of the “opinion” is illustrated by its unfounded assertion that the CM deprives the public of the “constitutional and statutory right to a democratically elected executive.” Nowhere is such a right specifically provided.

Fortunately, the state Attorney General’s Office later has largely put the issue to rest finding no issue with a CM system citing with approval the same constitutional and statutory language mentioned by the county attorney but interpreting it differently. When a definitive proposal is proposed for the ballot it would, though, be prudent to request a confirming opinion from the Attorney General.

The next step for the council to pursue its consideration of the concept of the CM system will be the formation of a council subcommittee. While this procedural method is new to Kauai, it is a route followed by many of the about 10,000 communities that now have the CM system. The record of their experience is available to provide guidance to our council.

The work of the subcommittee will include reviewing the options to be made to tailor the proposal to serve local requirements and to make a specific amendment available to the voters for the approval.

It is also important for our residents to learn about the features of a CM system. While the basic structure of the system and the advantages it offers are quite simple, regrettably at this time too few of you are familiar with them. As the council proceeds on its due diligence I intend to write some articles offering information about the system so that should the matter be presented for vote by our citizens an adequate understanding of how it could be of benefit to our county and its people .

It is also contemplated that citizen meetings will be held to discuss the subject. As there are some who resist change, even beneficial change, we need a fully informed electorate so that we can be cost efficiently and well governed.

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Walter Lewis is a retired attorney who lives on Kauai and writes a regular column for The Garden Island.

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