Kauai County manager system is certainly no pancea

We’ve heard a great deal over the last few months about the merits of adopting a county manager form of government for Kauai and eliminating the office of mayor, which has been our model since the County Charter was first adopted in 1968.

With seeming public support for the county manager concept, the County Council responded on June 24 by voting to create a committee (currently in formation) to study whether this is a step Kauai County should take.

It’s a tricky question. My view—expressed publicly on more than one occasion—is that the choice between a mayor and a county manager is one that can be argued passionately and with factual precision and force either for or against, much like the decision on whether County Council members should represent districts or serve at large.

The National Association of Counties says that about 800 counties — or roughly 15 percent of the national total of counties — employ some variant on the county manager system. It’s found in 35 states — though not in Hawaii. Without question, the county manager model is widespread and effective.

But since the debate about switching to a county manager system has been dominated by supporters, it’s worth considering the other perspective on this question, which could be summarized as: Wait a minute. No so fast.

Proponents argue that, because a county manager would be a trained expert in government administration that he or she would be immune to political pressures and the temptation to engage in unethical or illegal activity. They argue that the County Council would hire the manager and could fire him or her if necessary—introducing what advocates say would be an advantage over the need to endure a bad mayor for a full four-year term or go through the cumbersome process of recall or impeachment.

There are powerful arguments, however, for why this is naive and unrealistic and an example of the rose colored glasses syndrome. Try this yourself: launch an Internet search on the terms “county manager indicted” and “city manager indicted” and see what you get. You’ll find dozens of news stories over the last few years about county or city managers who have been brought to justice for old-fashioned forms of corruption, starting, of course, with stealing public money and embezzlement for personal gain.

This has occurred in two small cities in Texas and one in Mississippi this year alone. These indictments have come in the wake of charges filed, for example, against the county manager of Cibola County, New Mexico, for misuse of public funds and embezzlement and the former county manager of Monroe County New York, who was charged with trying to illegally influence judges.

One particularly infamous case in the City of Bell, California, became the poster child for how a city manager can turn to crime, particularly in collusion with a crooked city council. A similar case—not quite as infamous — occurred in nearby Vernon, Calif., involving its city manager.

County and city manager corruption appears to be more common in locales that do not have term limits — a situation that makes it easier for crooked long-term relationships to form between manager and council.

It would also be beneficial to compare Kauai County to Maui and Hawaii Counties, an exercise that will demonstrate quickly that Kauai has the weakest mayoral role in the entire state. The Kauai mayor, for example, is prohibited from hiring or firing the county prosecutor, planning director, water department director and human resources director. Maui’s mayor has the power to appoint and remove all of those. Hawaii’s mayor can do almost all of that, except appoint the prosecuting attorney, which — like Kauai County — is elected. Hiring and firing the police and fire chiefs is a power withheld from all three mayors and put in the hands of commissions the mayors appoint.

It’s worth noting that Kauai, Maui and Hawaii Counties already have managing director positions that report to the mayor and are intended to provide the advantages of technical competence while preserving the political primacy of an elected mayor. It’s also true that changing to a county manager system has been urged in Maui County.

A coherent argument could be made that if there are deficiencies in the effectiveness of Kauai’s mayor, changing our system to give the mayor more power, not eliminating the position, would be a remedy that should be considered. I say that fully aware that any switch in our system would require a charter amendment that, as a practical matter, could not go into effect until Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. has termed out. So this is not about him.

An even more cogent argument, though, is that in a small community like ours, an elected mayor can represent the county with more credibility than could a hired technocrat. This is particularly true in relations with the Legislature, where a mayor’s perspective has more inherent gravitas than a manager could.

So to Councilmember Mason Chock, who has taken up the cause of considering a change, and other proponents of the county manager concept, it’s worth remembering that this is no panacea. The various costs — financial, political and otherwise — of making such a change may very well not be in Kauai’s best interests.

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Kauai Perspective is a monthly column by former journalist and PR executive Allan Parachini, who lives and makes furniture in Kilauea.

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