Council turning back on citizen concerns

The members of our county council are chosen to represent the interests of the people of our island. Sadly, this basic democratic principle has been elusive for the members to grasp.

Instead of clearing the channels of communication between our citizens and the council, in recent years the course of the council has been to narrow them. First, the council ended the right of citizens testifying to ask questions of a council member. Recently, the council chose to end any questioning of the citizen by a council member.

Council meetings are frequently extended. Citizens wanting to testify on an agenda item might have to wait hours before that item was called. Until recently, as an accommodation, the council provided a time at the beginning of each session to hear testimony. Now, that has been eliminated.

Although there is no time limit for administration personnel testimony, citizens only have only an initial three minutes. For an item of any complexity, three minutes is inadequate.

To aggravate matters, the attention by council members to the testimony being given is often missing and testifiers frequently believe that their message is unheard.

This insularity is so compelling that only rarely is testimony from the public ever mentioned in discussions by council members among themselves on an agenda item.

While citizens can seek private sessions with individual council members, the opportunity to address them all is only available by testifying at meetings and only if their concern item is on the agenda.

It is recognized that council members desire to shorten their often lengthy sessions, but foreclosure of citizens opportunities to address their concerns on issues being considered is not the route to take. If council members wish to reduce the administrative burden that clogs their meetings, I have several suggestions for rule changes that would alleviate this problem. I doubt that I will hear from them.

A classic illustration of this malaise is the abrupt termination of consideration of the proposed council-manager system that had been entertained for almost a year with mostly favorable public testimony. The ostensible justification for this action was the rather trivial question about the status of the manager under Hawaii’s civil service laws. But underlying was the council’s deep seated aversion to exercising leadership on civic affairs and the inherent conflict of interest presented by the aspirations for the plum of local politics — the mayoral position.

Recently, council member Hooser issued a questionnaire seeking citizen input on desired council action (A good idea). Omitted from it was any mention of the council-manager system. But what does the absence of what is probably the most important legislative item that this council has considered say to us?

Another telling indication of our council’s limited regard for our citizens and their views is the question whether our voters are entitled to be able to decide how they wish to be governed. The resolution that the council was examining when the council-manager proposal was killed set forth a very reasonable version of a governmental system that is successfully in use in much of our nation. Of course, there are legitimate issues concerning whether the system is the optimal choice for Kauai. But are these not matters for the people who would be governed by the system to decide and should not the council members regardless of their personal views give our citizens the opportunity to vote? But our council is so detached from the interests of the electorate that it seems unlikely the point was given any reflection.

Supporters of our present mayor-council system recognize the grievous problems that have arisen under it, but insist the system is fine, we just need to elect better officials. Then they go ahead and elect the same people under whose watch the problems existed. .Such supporters are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

In my view, the deterioration of the government of our island will continue unless and until we have a citizenry that is alert and commands the respect and attention it deserves and a council that faithfully evaluates what its constituents are saying.

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

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