For about six months, the Kauai County Council has been considering a proposal to alter how our county is governed. For most of the time since the adoption of the Kauai County Charter in 1969, our governmental system has consisted of an elected mayor who, as the county’s chief executive officer, has been responsible for the administration of the principal county’s operating departments and the elected County Council, which has had legislative power including the adoption of the county budget and capital program.
However, over this time, another local governmental form generally known as the council-manager system has been gaining in popularity elsewhere in our country. The council-manager system is now in force in over half of the city and county bodies of similar size to that of Kauai. Hawaii is the only state where a council-manager system has not been adopted.
The basic difference between the two systems is that in the council-manager system, the manager is a person whose qualifications are education and experience in municipal management who is chosen, reports to and may be removed by the council. The qualification requirements for the mayor are residence in the county and winning an election.
The council-manager system is not infallible. There are instances where it has not performed well. However, it is objectively regarded by most commentators as clearly the better choice for accountability, efficiency, continuity and transparency reasons.
The council initiated its examination of the council-manager system by forming in December of last year a council committee to study the system and advise the council of its findings. Following this, the council undertook to establish the content of the necessary resolution to contain the provisions of the measure to amend the County Charter and submit the proposal for decision by the county electorate.
On May 4, a proposed form of such a resolution was considered by the council. Although no definitive action was taken at that time as to the specific provisions, discussions by council members of the proposal indicated that in concept it was favored by five of the council members and they set the matter for further discussion at the May 11 meeting.
A troublesome roadblock arose at the May 11 meeting. A provision of Hawaii Revised Statutes states that all county employees are to be subject to civil service requirements unless exempted. Exemptions from these requirements exist for all upper echelons of county employees and elected officers.
If a county manager office had existed when the statute was enacted, it is overwhelmingly likely that it too would be exempt. In my view, at this point the council misstepped. Time is urgent and instead of commissioning a legal review of the civil service issue and potential solutions and continuing to examine any issues on the content, the council deferred all action until receiving legal comments.
As the proposal would not be effective if adopted by the voters until after the 2018 election, there is ample time to obtain any needed rectification of the civil service issue, and the proposal could proceed and could be made subject to the occurrence of such correction if necessary.
As to the remaining issues on the proposal content itself, there are several, but only one is crucial.
At present, it is proposed that in addition to the changes in the Charter essential to instituting the council-manager system, the council proposes a provision that council terms of service be increased from the present two years to four years and elections be staggered.
As the voters have previously rejected this change, its inclusion in the proposal seriously jeopardizes its passage. If the council wishes to have the term increase on the 2016 ballot it should offer it as a separate stand alone measure so the voters would be able to decide on the council-manager system on a clean straight up or down basis.
Changing to the council-manager system is, I believe, in the best interests of the county and its people and we should encourage the council to take the necessary action to give us the opportunity we deserve to decide how we wish to be governed.
Walter Lewis is a retired attorney who lives on Kauai. He writes a monthly column for The Garden Island.