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And sometimes, all that translates into real change.
It is an old form of civic engagement that can feel at least a generation removed from online social media discussions, and yet it still works.
Honolulu’s neighborhood board system, the only one in the state, was created in 1972. Voters approved a City Charter amendment to open a new avenue for citizen participation. There are now 36 such boards across Oahu.
As a cub reporter starting out in Hawaii during late 2006, there was no better resource for me to cruise through than the Oahu Neighborhood Commission Office’s website.
Aesthetically, the website is hideous. It gives off a retro-1990s early Internet vibe, complete with the animated gif of the Hawaiian flag. It almost feels like I should be browsing through the site with Netscape Navigator, the once-famous but antiquated browser that died off in 2002. A dancing baby wouldn’t look out of place.
But like the system the site represents, it still works. There’s a treasure trove of news for a reporter looking for stories, or for people who just want to know what is going on. After spending a few minutes looking through the August agendas for several neighborhood boards, which are all posted on the site, I discovered that:
All of this can be found here where there are lists of boards. Their agendas are posted fairly quickly, and sometimes they describe what happened in meetings in great detail.
The 439 board members might hate me for highlighting this, but most of their phone numbers are posted here. Sometimes their business phones are listed and occasionally even their cell numbers. As a reporter, this is a gold mine. The members (usually) aren’t politicians, but people with day jobs. They may represent their own special interests, or they may have political ambitions beyond the school cafeterias that they meet in. But they are all still real people with real concerns.
For journalists or engaged members of the local community, this can offer a direct line to the local community’s interests or concerns, whether small or large. Why do yellow flowers attract more pests? You’ll find the answer. And what about the controversial and recent dumping of sludge from Hawaii Kai to the Leeward coast? And your elected district lawmakers, not to mention representatives from Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s office and agencies are often present to answer questions on how the city government is addressing these concerns.
This can lead to specific actions. The Neighborhood Commission Office, headed by Nicole Velasco, receives resolutions from the various boards to address certain issues. In June, there was a resolution that raised concerns about graffiti at Aala Skate Park. The resolution was then forwarded to other agencies and City Council members, which resulted in the park’s cleanup.
“The boards are the conduit to which concerns can be guided,” Velasco said. “Yes, it’s in a very formal manner. The resolution has to be drafted, motioned and voted upon before heading to the administration.”
But that bureaucratic synergy is important because of the amount of unfiltered noise that could seep through to the agencies, she added.
“Government is not omniscient,” Velasco said. “It’s incumbent upon the community to relay information to government. The assumption that the government should just know is not only false, but also inefficient. That’s how problems arise.”
Civil Beat’s motto is “Change begins with a question.” Change also begins at the neighborhood boards. It’s where the politicians go. It’s where the agency directors go. It’s where the news media goes.
When it comes to engagement, social media isn’t always where it’s at. Yeah, there may be an app for that — or at least for some of your complaints. But for many in Hawaii, nothing beats a good old-fashioned vocal grumbling at the microphone in a muggy school cafeteria.