The Honolulu Charter Commission commission is poised to vote on two proposed amendments to the city charter described as enhancing public participation.

But that bit of political doublespeak conceals the reality that the proposals would dismantle important structures providing opportunities for active participation in city government.

After turning down several proposals for strengthening access to public records (concluding there’s no need to “facilitate greater access to public records”) and others calling for improving Honolulu’s system of neighborhood boards, a commission subcommittee made just two recommendations, which are both scheduled to be decided by the commission at its meeting Thursday.

Concerns are aired at a Waianae Neighborhood Board meeting.
Concerns are aired at a Waianae Neighborhood Board meeting. KITV

One proposal would “sunset” Honolulu’s system of neighborhood boards — get rid of them all, in plain English — and substitute the use of “current communication technologies” to deliver information to community members and collect feedback on proposed developments.

A second proposal would require ongoing reviews and evaluations of all city boards and commissions not required by state or federal law, with the goal of eliminating those not “required and necessary to support the core services of the city.”

Exactly how and why the four-member subcommittee screened out other conflicting proposals and instead ended up supporting these two isn’t known because, ironically, the “open government” discussions were conducted behind closed doors.

The commission took advantage of a provision of the state’s sunshine law that allows the appointment of a subcommittee, or permitted interaction group, made up of less than a quorum of members to “investigate a matter relating to the official business of their board.” These subcommittees do not have to comply with the open meeting requirements of the sunshine law.

And, as a result, we don’t know much about the actual discussions that led to these “open government” recommendations.

Shedding ‘Wasteful’ Boards and Commissions

Attorney and lobbyist Rick Tsujimura, a member of the Charter Commission, submitted Proposal 40 relating to city boards and commissions.

It calls for the City Council to “review the necessity” of each of the city’s boards and commissions at least every five years. He proposes these evaluations consider, at minimum, each board’s budget, staff requirement, the impact of eliminating the board, the board’s “overall necessity,” and any other relevant issues.

His proposal then calls for placing each board and commission on the ballot for voters to cast up or down votes. Failing to receive the support of 50 percent of voters would result in the board or commission being disbanded.

Ironically, the “open government” discussions were conducted behind closed doors.

Although Tsujimura’s proposal does not disclose its motivation, the subcommittee recommendation says it stems from “the importance of eliminating waste and promoting efficient government.”

I wonder, though, how much this never-ending review process will cost in time, money and amount of board attention diverted to continually defending the boards’ right to exist.

And, of course, there are certain to be huge disputes over what should be counted as “core” city services and which considered “waste” that should be done away with.

However, those boards that appear most threatened include the Board of Parks and Recreation, Commission on Culture and the Arts, the Grants-in-Aid Advisory Commission, the Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Bicycling, the Oahu Historic Preservation Commission, the Transportation Commission and, of course, the Neighborhood Commission.

Targeting The Neighborhood Boards

The subcommittee’s most far-reaching recommendation is to eliminate the neighborhood boards. Interestingly, none of the five proposals the subcommittee started with called for destroying the  neighborhood board system that was launched more than 40 years ago.

Proposal 19, submitted by commission member and former legislator Donna Ikeda, would have reduced the number of neighborhood boards from the current 33 to just nine, each corresponding to a City Council district.

Another proposal (No. 113) called for neighborhood board members to be elected in the same general election in which the City Council member for the district in which they are located is also elected, rather than in a separate election in which relatively few votes are cast. It would also require candidates to be nominated by at least 40 voters in their district.

Reducing that experience to simply watching an informational briefing online is like saying that watching a baseball game on television is like playing on a baseball team.

Two proposals submitted by Tom Heinrich, a longtime board member and chair, pointed to issues structural issues which, he argues, have weakened the boards.

In Proposal 129, Heinrich points out that positions with the neighborhood commission, which provide support services for the 33 boards, are considered patronage positions controlled by the mayor.

He notes that in 2005 and in 2013, incoming mayors Mufi Hannemann and Kirk Caldwell each fired a majority of the commission’s staff, making it “particularly difficult” for the commission to provide the professional and expert support the boards need.

Heinrich proposed that commission staff, other than the executive director, be made part of the civil service system and removed from the ranks of pure patronage.

And in a separate proposal (No. 126), Heinrich suggested charter amendments to clarify the role of the neighborhood boards, including their role as a “community forum,” as well as the powers and responsibilities of the neighborhood commission and its executive director.

The proposal seeking to eliminate at least some neighborhood boards (Proposal 30) was submitted by attorney Terrence Aratani, who spent 25 years in state government, including serving as chief of staff to former Senate President Donna Kim. Aratani argued that it would be “more fiscally responsible” to have the City Council schedule town meetings when it needed community input, rather than support the existing boards, which can be quirky and unreliable.

Aratani complained: “It seems that only a few individuals take advantage of these boards and most residents do not even bother unless there is an issue directly related to their neighborhood or community.”

Honolulu Hale 2016 interior. 27 jan 2016. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Without neighborhood boards, would local concerns be heard in the halls of Honolulu Hale? Cory Lum/CIvil Beat

But isn’t that the whole idea of the neighborhood boards, bringing city issues down to the neighborhood level so that people can get involved when they are directly impacted?

And it seems to me that Aratani, and other members of the permitted interaction group, make a fundamental error when they say that the primary purpose of the boards is to provide feedback to city officials on issues, which they argue can be done more efficiently via email, video conferencing, use of computer networking and social media.

All those things are true, but they don’t capture perhaps the most important part of the neighborhood boards.

It would make more sense to be looking for ways to support the boards and provide people more reasons to participate.

The boards provide much more than just an opportunity to comment on city issues. The boards give their members direct experience in the realities of governing. They have to grapple with everything from the constraints of the sunshine law to the building of consensus, working with community groups, and doing the nitty gritty things required of the process of governing. And, like government at other levels, it’s not always pretty.

Reducing that experience to simply watching an informational briefing online is like saying that watching a baseball game on television is like playing on a baseball team. Observing politics and commenting on public public issues is quite different from being a neighborhood board member responsible for voting on key issues and making board decisions according to the laws and rules of the city. That’s an experience that isn’t replicated elsewhere, a public classroom in what makes government work (or not work).

Aratani similarly trivializes the appearance of police and fire department representatives at neighborhood board meetings, calling them “a waste of resources.” While it is true that many departmental representatives do not make good use of their time at board meetings, these are often prime opportunities for learning more about the community and where residents see problems that seem to be overlooked. And for many people, neighborhood board meetings are the only times when they actually hear from and can ask questions of police and fire department representatives.

But even Aratani did not call for simply doing away with the boards. Instead, he recommended each board be evaluated on its performance, abolishing those found to be ineffective. Are they able to reliably get a quorum to conduct business? Do residents who are not board members participate? Does infighting render the board unable to do its job?

Those are good things to question and to evaluate. Once again, though, it isn’t at all clear how the subcommittee got from Aratani’s proposal to the more radical recommendation to get rid of all the neighborhood boards.

I would suggest that from the public point of view, it would make more sense to be looking for ways to support the boards and provide people more reasons to participate, more support as they learn the process, and more rewards for doing so.

If either or both of the recommended amendments are approved by the Charter Commission at this week’s meeting, they will then be placed on the ballot for voters to consider.

Donna Wong, longtime community activist with Hawaii’s Thousand Friends, sent an email to supporters last week noting the important role that neighborhood boards have played as a forum for residents opposing unbridled development.

“If this question makes the ballot just imagine the $ and PR that large landowners, development and construction etc. interests will pour into getting rid of this grass roots community-based system that was created to ensure that people have a voice in their community,” Wong wrote.

The agenda for the June 9 meeting of the Charter Commission is available, and testimony may also be submitted online.

About the Author

  • Ian Lind
    Ian Lind is an award-winning investigative reporter and columnist who has been blogging daily for more than 20 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.