The Honolulu Charter Commission provides a once-every-10-years opportunity to amend the City Charter, which spells out the basic structure of city government and the rights of its citizens, similar to what what the state and federal constitutions do for those levels of government.
You might be surprised to learn that the 2015-16 Charter Commission is already about halfway through its allotted time to review and recommend any charter amendments. Any recommended changes have to be approved, put in final form, reduced to what will appear on the general election ballot, and then translated and submitted to election officials by next Aug. 25 deadline.
Unlike some previous charter reviews, when high levels of public interest and involvement in city issues made the commission’s work a focal point for community involvement, the current Charter Commission, which has been meeting since March 2015, has been operating mostly under the public’s radar.
The Charter Commission is quietly looking at proposals to change some of the ways things are done at Honolulu Hale.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The commission received 154 proposals for charter amendments prior to its deadline, including 39 proposals submitted by commission members, and 20 by city departments and agencies. The remainder were proposed by concerned individuals, as well as public interest and professional groups.
Theoretically, the commission’s review of the charter can bring major improvements. For example, the proposals include increasing oversight and accountability of police officers, imposing stricter campaign contribution limits, strengthening public records laws, improving the process for buying and preserving important lands, and providing additional funding for affordable housing.
Some proposals are, from the public’s perspective, mostly housecleaning measures, such as those making relatively minor revisions to departmental structures and organization.
But the long list of proposals also includes some that raise large red flags.
Turning Back The Clock
Here’s one example.
In late September, a unanimous decision by the Hawaii Supreme Court overturned a zoning variance that would have allowed a new 26-story hotel-condo tower to be built within the protected shoreline setback along Waikiki Beach. It was a victory for the environmental organizations that brought the legal challenge and, more importantly, for the planning process and the public’s ability to manage and control continuing urbanization and development.
The court ruled the city’s planning director had abused his discretion in approving the variance requested by Kyo-ya Hotels and Resorts, owner of the Sheraton hotels in Waikiki. Kyo-ya and the city had argued that the planned replacement for the existing Diamond Head tower of the Moana Surfrider Hotel would contribute to the improvement of the area, despite conflicting with the shoreline protection provisions of the Waikiki Special Design District.
The “David and Goliath” aspects of the legal case, which pitted several underfunded, nonprofit environmental groups and their sole attorney against an array of attorneys and consultants representing Kyo-ya and the city, made the court’s decision all the more stunning.
But just a month later, the city proposed a charter amendment to change the criteria for approval of variances, expanding the planning director’s discretion and effectively nullifying the court ruling.
The proposal would allow a variance to be granted if a developer faced “practical difficulties” complying with the zoning code’s restrictions on size, height, density or similar “dimensional” limits.
Linda Paul, the attorney who successfully represented the plaintiffs in the challenge to Kyo-ya’s oceanfront tower, called the “practical difficulties” standard “absurd.”
“It is so vague that anything can qualify,” she said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
Donna Wong, executive director of Hawaii’s Thousand Friends, which was a plaintiff in the case, pointed to existing public concern about the string of variances granted to new high-rise projects throughout Honolulu.
“This would make every variance easier to get,” Wong said.
If the proposal had been submitted as legislation to be considered by the City Council, it would likely have earned headlines as it moved slowly through the long legislative process. Instead, the proposal was submitted to the charter commission, where it sits largely unseen as Proposal #81 in a list of 154.
Out Of The Public Eye
Natalie Iwasa, a CPA and community activist known in some circles as “Bike Mom” for her advocacy on behalf of bicycle-friendly streets, said she is concerned the lack of information about the commission’s activities and importance is contributing to public apathy.
“People just don’t know what is happening,” she said.
Her immediate concern is the commission’s meeting scheduled for Thursday, where 24 proposals are set to be “deferred indefinitely,” meaning they will be effectively killed.
According to the meeting agenda, the proposals being rejected “fall within the purview of another jurisdiction,” propose fundamental changes to city government, or call for dismantling the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit, the agency in charge of the rail project.
Among the targeted proposals are two election-related ideas from Common Cause, which would require the city clerk to be more proactive by participating in “get out the vote” efforts and distributing a voter guide to candidates and issues, and another from the Trust for Public Lands to increase the effectiveness of the Clean Water and Natural Lands Commission. Other proposals at risk relate to a variety of subjects, from campaign contribution limits to regulation of wind farms, rent stabilization, GMO labeling and minimum wage.
“People are really concerned about some of these issues, and they shouldn’t be just dismissed like that,” Iwasa said.
The 13-member charter commission is made up of six members named by the mayor, six by the council, and one nominated by the mayor and confirmed by the council.
Its membersinclude top lobbyists representing large landowners and developers, two union leaders, a land use lawyer, a retired city administrator, former Gov. John Waihee and former state Sen. Donna Ikeda.
The current chairman, David Rae, is a retired executive and lobbyist for Campbell Estate and its successor companies. Rae has been identified as one of the lobbyists whose gifts of meals and entertainment to members of the City Council resulted in ethics charges and civil fines against council members Romy Cachola and Nestor Garcia.
Among the proposals pending before the commission are several dealing with ethics, including at least one that would roll back the restrictions on gifts to public officials and employees by lobbyists and others.
Proposal #153, submitted by commissioner Donna Ikeda, would narrow the gift restrictions, which currently prohibit any gifts where “it can reasonably be inferred”the gift is intended to influence or reward a city official for actions taken as part of their official duties.
The commission is subject to the state’s sunshine law, but a little noticed provision of the current City Charter exempts members of the Charter Commission from the city’s ethics code, including those parts dealing with conflict of interest, gifts and financial disclosures. After being advised of the exemption at one of their first meetings in back in March, the commission voted to delete the rule requiring disclosure of potential conflicts, although the rule had been adopted and followed by the last Charter Commission in 2005.
Much of the commission’s first several months were spent on organizational issues, including budget, rules and hiring a small staff. Then it turned to sessions reviewing the functions of the city’s major departments and agencies.
Unfortunately, the most recent minutes available on the commission’s website are from its July meetings. No minutes are available for the eight public meetings held since July, although the state’s sunshine law requires minutes to be publicly available within 30 days after the meeting.
This makes it difficult to know just where the commission is in its deliberations, and how it plans to whittle down the long list of proposals to those it will submit to voters next fall. Public meetings are being planned to solicit testimony and comments, but the organization of the meetings and scheduling apparently remain up in the air.
For more information about the Charter Commission, including a list of members, meeting agendas, minutes, along with a list of proposals and other background materials, visit its website at honoluluchartercommission.org.
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Ian Lind is an award-winning investigative reporter and columnist who has been blogging daily for 15 years. He has also worked as a newsletter publisher, public interest advocate and lobbyist for Common Cause in Hawaii, peace educator, and legislative staffer. Lind is a lifelong resident of the islands. Read his blog here. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.