Public influencing council action on county manager proposal

The Kauai County Council finds itself with a dilemma as it ponders what — if anything — to do next about whether to change our system of government by abolishing the office of mayor and creating the position of county manager, who would answer politically to the council.

Two significant factors are at play, including one that goes to the core of how the County Council makes decisions and who influences them. The other underscores how rushed the council’s stampede to create a county manager has been, since the proposal got all the way through the drafting process with the council unaware that the concept is likely illegal under Hawaii law.

I don’t attend every County Council meeting, but I have sat in on a number of them, including several of the public “workshops” and debate that produced the seemingly ill-fated county manager proposal. Throughout my time observing the council, I have been struck by the influence on the agenda and actions of a small number of people — a half-dozen or fewer — best described as squeaky wheels, who appear and speak in public comment periods relating to a large number of the measures the council is considering.

These individuals exercise their rights to engage the council in discourse about legislation. They speak their minds in many cases bluntly and sometimes spitefully. But they are the embodiment of how our system of government is supposed to work. Getting bogged down in their public comments slows the legislative process, but that is a price we all willingly pay for the sort of government we have. Democracy can be unwieldy.

These public comment speakers have largely been responsible for pushing the council to study and then consider legislation to introduce a county manager system.

At one public “workshop,” for example, the chairman observed that the council was aware that a county manager system was what the public wants. There is no way he could have known that. In fact, reviews of the fiasco that ultimately derailed the proposal suggests that the people of Kauai County do not want this system, or are at best lukewarm toward it.

Three of the people who wield the most influence over our County Council are Ken Taylor, Glenn Mickens and Matt Bernabe. Taylor ran unsuccessfully for the council in 2010. Bernabe has filed to run this year.

Taylor served in the U.S. Navy reserve for five years between 1956 and 1961, and then spent a 35-year career in what he has described as “a small, design-and-installation, service-oriented business.” He believes this background provides him expertise in “land use planning, environment and sustainable economics.”

Mickens is a former major league baseball player. His ML career consists of pitching four games for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1953, compiling a lifetime record of 0-1, with an earned run average of 11.37 and five strikeouts. Cut by the Dodgers, Mickens then spent four seasons pitching in Japan for the Kintetsu Buffaloes. He has coached baseball at UCLA and still has a clear and genuine passion for the game.

Bernabe is a newcomer. He has been a talkative fixture at public meetings for more than two years, understands he is not an expert in government and is a landscaper and former cook who lost part of a leg in car crash.

These three people — with two or three others — have waged a sort of filibuster in public comment and the County Council bought their line. Had it not been for their relentless advocacy to adopt a county manager system by this handful of people, the proposal would likely have died long ago. And the county manager controversy is only one issue this group of what might be called gadflies has exerted influence on with the council vastly out of proportion to their numbers and the degree to which they speak for the people of Kauai.

So what is the legacy of this process of influence? It is that the County Council stampeded itself into seriously considering a proposal that should have, months ago, undergone the legal review by County Attorney Mauna Kea Trask who discovered the nettlesome fact that the county manager system desired by the council is likely illegal.

When Trask explained this, it was as if lightning had struck. Yet it is the council itself whose process failed embarrassingly. Some members believe the county manager plan can yet be salvaged and want to go to the Legislature next year to try to force changes in Hawaii Revised Statutes Section 76-77, which makes it very clear that most top offices in county government administration in Hawaii must have civil service protection.

Maui County, it turns out, is also considering a county manager proposal and attorneys there apparently see this statute differently. The Maui proposal would call the job the county managing director (a more powerful office than Kauai’s managing director, who works for the mayor) and lawyers there seem to believe that it makes no difference whether the mayor or the county council does the hiring and that the civil service issue is ambiguous enough to justify seeking help from the Legislature, or even going ahead with the Maui plan anyway.

Trask simply doesn’t see it that way and he makes a persuasive case that the intent of Section 76-77 is to prevent elected politicians from reserving the position of county chief executive for someone who is beholden politically to them. My bet — and I am certainly no lawyer — is that Trask is right.

And with that, a great deal of time and effort that could have been devoted to more productive tasks has been largely squandered.

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Allan Parachini is a former journalist and PR executive. He is a Kilauea resident.

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