Councilmembers should be able to ask questions

It happens every now and then that a citizen shows up at a Kauai County Council meeting to voice their opinion on an issue. It might be taxes. It might be traffic. It might be something about their noisy neighbor or a barking dog. It could be their concerns about solid waste and recycling.

And that’s good. Citizen involvement in government is an essential part of a democratic society. People should be encouraged to know what their county leaders are doing, and provide input, as well. Those who take their time to attend a county meeting and offer testimony deserve praise for caring enough to speak up and taking time out of their day to visit the council. Their comments can influence the actions of the very people elected to represent them.

On that note, citizens who speak before the council should be prepared to answer a few questions. They should be ready to explain their point a little more, just in case a councilmember isn’t quite clear on what they meant. Sometimes, when a person explains something, it might not be easily understood and some follow-up queries are in order. It helps the councilmembers be sure they have an understanding and make the best decisions.

But there’s a problem.

Councilmembers aren’t allowed to ask clarifying questions of a person giving testimony during a public hearing. That measure was passed last year. It was passed for a few reasons — to speed up lengthy council meetings, to prevent citizens from fearing they would be grilled like a hostile witness if they spoke before the council, and keep any councilmembers from repeatedly questioning someone.

There are other restrictions on councilmembers. Each has five minutes to speak on each agenda item. They are also not allowed to speak more than twice on the same topic. And no questions asked of those offering testimony during a public hearing.

While we certainly applaud and appreciate the efforts and dedication of county council and know their time is valuable, and we don’t want meetings to go any longer than necessary, we recommend the council give due consideration on Wednesday to a resolution proposed by Councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura.

According to the resolution, the rule change allows councilmembers to ask clarifying questions to better understand concerns the testifier is bringing forward.

Other proposed changes include allowing any person with time constraints to speak at the beginning of the agenda on any agenda item. It also seeks to allow councilmembers six minutes to speak on the same agenda item.

The key change is giving the councilmembers the ability to ask questions of people who offer testimony. Restricting councilmembers from asking questions really restricts their abilities to do their jobs and be certain they are making decisions based on the right information. They may not have understood some of the public comments.

They might need clarification to be sure they understand the speaker’s points. To restrict questions presents them from doing just that.

Councilmembers are elected to represent the public, and they can best do that by simply being able to ask a few questions of people who come before them. We trust councilmembers will show sound judgment and show respect to those who speak at meetings. We trust they will not interrogate people and make them sorry they came to the meeting to voice their views. We trust they will not try to turn a council meeting into a Perry Mason court case. Perhaps the number of questions they can ask of someone can be limited to two.

Again, we realize the county council has a full plate with each meeting. We appreciate their time and thank them for their service. We don’t like meetings to go too long, either. But councilmembers should have the ability to ask questions so they can do the very job they were elected to do to the very best of their abilities.

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