Spelling out the charter amendments

LIHUE — Seven proposed amendments to the Kauai County Charter are on the ballot this election season.

They range from making sure language is gender neutral to clearly defining a charter amendment, and are a result of about a year’s worth of work led by the Charter Review Commission.

The commission is a seven-member commission appointed by Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. and approved by the County Council.

It is a group of unpaid volunteers, said Ed Justus, vice chair.

“We don’t have the power to change anything in charter,” he said. “Our sole purpose is to propose amendments.”

Other commissioners include chairman Allan Parachini, Michael Perel, Russell Wong, Patrick Stack, Cheryl Stigimeier and Mia Ako.

If any or all of the amendments are passed, it will be up to the council to enact ordinances, which will give the charter backbone, Parachini said.

While some of the amendments essentially clean up the language and clarify the duties of some county jobs, others would change the way certain procedures are carried out.

When voting, residents will be asked to answer either “yes” or “no” to every amendment.

1st charter amendment

“Shall the charter be amended throughout to ensure that its language is to the greatest extent possible gender neutral and to make changes to spelling, capitalization, punctuation, formatting and grammar?”

The purpose of this amendment is to recognize that the charter was written in 1968 and has gone through various re-writes, leaving grammatical errors, Parachini said.

It also changes the wording to make the charter as gender neutral as possible, making sure women are represented, Parachini said.

“Even though the law is clear about differentiating between ‘he’ and ‘she,’ the reality of it is that it isn’t reflected in the charter,” Parachini said.

The proposed amendment takes out words like “councilman” and “chairman” and replaces them with “councilmember” and “chair.”

The change doesn’t make legal difference, but the commission believed it was necessary to make the change to reflect the gender diversity of the island, Parachini said.

“The main objective is to realize the concerns women have of appearing to be included in the document,” he said.

2nd charter amendment

“Shall the duties of the fire chief be clarified to include duties currently performed such as addressing hazardous materials, emergency medical services, and ocean safety, and shall the reference to the mayor’s authority to assign duties be removed?”

The purpose of this amendment is to spruce up the fire chief’s job description, which is several years old, Parachini said.

“Important changes have happened. For the department, the balance between fire and medical calls have leaned more toward medical calls,” Parachini said.

The current charter does not mention medical calls or ocean safety, but the commission believed those duties needed to be addressed, he said.

While some people have claimed the amendment takes away some of the mayor’s power, those changes were approved by the Mayor’s Office, Parachini said.

3rd charter amendment

“Shall a zoning board of appeals be established to hear appeals from decisions of the planning director and to conduct evidentiary hearings at the request of the Planning Commission?”

In recent years, the number of contested case hearings before the Planning Commission has increased, leading the Planning Department to hire outside hearings officers.

“The Planning Department was worried about how much money they were spending, so it was their idea to create a Zoning Board of Appeals,” Parachini said.

If approved, the Zoning Board of Appeals would be a seven-member board trained to hear appeals regarding zoning and subdivision ordinances.

“Zoning is a contentious field, and there’s only going to be more challenges, appeals and litigation in the future,” Parachini said. “This objective is to allow the appeals process to continue, but make it affordable.”

The language in this amendment was crafted by Mike Dahilig, planning director, and Mauna Kea Trask, county attorney, Parachini said.

4th charter amendment

“Shall the county Civil Defense Agency be renamed the Emergency Management Agency and its organization clarified consistent with state law?”

Recently, Hawaii state law renamed the Civil Defense Agency as the Emergency Management Agency. But Kauai did not make the change, and this amendment seeks to make Kauai consistent with the rest of the state.

“It sounds like an inconsequential change,” Parachini said. “But Civil Defense goes back to the nuclear bomb era, and to many people, it goes back to bomb shelters.”

Another reason for the amendment is to make sure Kauai will receive Federal Emergency Management funding, he said.

5th charter amendment

“Shall the percentage of registered voter signatures required to start the initiative or referendum process be reduced to 10 percent from 20 percent, and shall the percentage of registered voter signatures required to start the charter amendment process via voter petition be increased to 10 percent from 5 percent?”

The purpose of this amendment is to clearly define the process Kauai residents can use to introduce a charter amendment.

Under the current rules of the charter, if voters want to introduce a charter amendment, a petition needs to be signed by 20 percent of the voting population. The amendment seeks to change that to 10 percent, making the process easier to get amendments on the ballot.

6th charter amendment

“Shall it be specified what constitutes a charter amendment, and shall the processing of a proposed charter amendment via voter petition be revised to enable the county clerk to determine whether the proposal is a valid charter amendment?”

The amendment was written to eliminate confusion over what constitutes a charter amendment, said Justus.

“The way the charter is written, anything can be presented as a charter amendment,” he said.

But not every proposed change is valid, so the amendment also seeks to change the way in which amendments are determined to be valid.

Currently, that job lies with the County Council, but the majority of commission membersbelieved the council does not have the authority to make those decisions, Justus said.

“It eliminates council from interfering with voter-initiated amendments,” Justus said.

This amendment would give that duty to the county clerk.

“There would be a direct line from people to county clerk, who would then decide if it’s a valid charter amendment,” Justus said. “The key thing is that clerk, by this amendment, would be required to get a a rule from court if he or she does not think not a valid amendment.”

7th charter amendment

“Shall the Charter Review Commission be an ongoing commission?”

As the charter stands today, the commission will disband at the end of the year. It won’t reconvene again for another 10 years.

But this amendment seeks to make the commission a permanent fixture in the county government.

Having a permanent Charter Review Commission allows the public a venue to propose changes to the charter and frees up the council to deal with the bigger issues, Parachini said.

“The fire department and civil defense amendments, they seem very trivial and minor to most people,” he said. And it’s true it’s not the most graphic things to happen in government, but they’re important for the charter.”

Justus agreed.

“The charter commission deals with a lot of smaller housekeeping measures, things that are minor adjustments that aren’t handled by council,” he said.

A full-time Charter Review Commission allows for better transparency, Justus added.

But whether or not it passes, the amendment won’t have an effect on the current commission, Parachini said.

“No matter what happens, the seven of us are off at the end of December,” he said. “We have no investment in staying in power. If it’s passed, in January, mayor will appoint a whole new charter commission.”

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