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Every month, Michael Eli stands up to address military officials at the Waianae Coast Neighborhood Board meeting.
When will the United States end its illegal occupation of the Hawaiian Islands? he asks.
“No comment,” Army Maj. Richard Bell always responds.
Downtown-Chinatown Neighborhood Board members have probably never heard that question, but they’re used to disputes about noise, alcohol consumption and street closures from block parties sponsored by Chinatown’s young entrepreneurial class.
For the record, Oahu’s 33 neighborhood boards can’t grant liquor licenses, or evict the American military. They are strictly advisory, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have impact.
They can pass resolutions supporting or opposing government action, but they don’t create policy or choose where public funds are spent. Topics discussed at board meetings include trees that need trimming, potholes that need repair and sometimes bigger issues like proposed high rise developments.
And if you think neighborhood board meetings are just platforms for people to gripe, it could be that you’ve never been to one.
“Some people feel that they just go there, bitch and complain, and nothing ever happens,” said Amanda Ybanez, a member of the Kalihi-Palama Neighborhood Board. “But if it’s done correctly and you have the right people on the board that are voted in, not only are the politicians being held accountable and doing things, but the board members make sure that there is follow-up.”
Public outcry followed a proposed charter amendment last year that would have done away with the boards. A separate amendment that calls for periodic reviews of all city boards and commissions was approved.
While the measure to end the board system never made it to the ballot, it prompted a discussion over how effective the boards are as platforms for democracy. Sometimes the meetings are sparsely attended, and 18 of the boards have at least one vacancy.
The Neighborhood Commission Office, which oversees the neighborhood boards, is ramping up its public outreach efforts this year in hopes of drawing more people to the meetings and to vote in the upcoming board elections.
The elections, which occur every two years, take place online beginning Friday and continuing until May 19.
“You’re really in touch with the pulse of the community going to the neighborhood boards,” said Shawn Hamamoto, executive secretary of the Neighborhood Commission Office.
Honolulu voters created the neighborhood board system in 1973 to give residents a stronger voice in issues and policies that affect them.
“The best training for a neighborhood board member is simply living in their neighborhood,” said Tyler Dos Santos-Tam, a member of the Neighborhood Commission. “You don’t need to be an expert in all the policy issues.”
The meetings provide a forum for residents to present their concerns to elected officials — if those officials show up. Some politicians send office representatives who may take an initial shot at answering questions, then return the following month with fuller responses.
Some board members say the information they get at meetings is inadequate, and that officials need to be more transparent.
In recent years, “the city has not been responsive,” said Stanford Yuen, who has served on the Downtown-Chinatown Neighborhood Board for 18 years. “They’ll give a halfway answer that’ll raise more questions … a lot of times they’ll just leave it open and walk away.”
Some officials respond to questions with highly technical language. Wilson Koike of the Waianae Coast Neighborhood Board said that’s a tactic.
“They have substitute, flowery answers which have no yes or no, and that’s the game they play,” Koike said. “We want a simple English answer, not technical, legalese answer.”
Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s office referred questions about neighborhood boards to Hamamoto, who said it may take a while for the city to thoroughly respond to inquiries and technical terms are sometimes appropriate.
“I don’t think it’s a case where the mayor’s representatives are trying to deceive,” Hamamoto said.
The boards also provide a forum for business owners, developers, nonprofits and other community organizations.
Dos Santos-Tam would like to see more small businesses get involved with the boards. While some owners might not live in the area where their business is located, he said, they may spend as much of their waking lives in the neighborhoods as residents do.
The boards are places where government agencies, businesses and residents can intersect.
“Government agencies rely heavily on what neighborhood boards say,” Hamamoto said.
The Honolulu Liquor Commission, for example, must notify the local neighborhood board before granting a liquor license.
If residents want a park to close at night, the Department of Parks and Recreation must get the OK from that area’s neighborhood board prior to implementation.
Last month, the Manoa Neighborhood Board meeting drew a crowd because Robert Kroning, the director of the Department of Design and Construction, attended to talk about road conditions in the valley.
While boards can’t create policy, they can wield influence through resolutions.
Over the last few months, Amy Perruso attended one board meeting after another to represent the Hawaii State Teachers Association. At each meeting, she urged board members to pass resolutions supporting Senate Bill 686, which died at the Legislature last week but would have generated more money for schools through a constitutional amendment to raise some property taxes.
Kakaako/Ala Moana Neighborhood Board Chairman Ryan Tam has two categories for the people who attend his board’s meetings: “real people” and “fake people.”
“Real people” are local residents who choose to participate. “Fake people” include contractors, consultants, city and state officials and their representatives, and the occasional reporters who attend because they have to.
Tam has sat through meetings where as few as two “real people” showed up. When the turnout of local residents is low, the meetings become just a conversation between board members, he said.
It can be difficult for people to commit to a meeting that might last two-plus hours on a weeknight.
Location also plays a role in turnout.
Waianae board meetings are held at the district park, a building complex that’s accessible by bus and buzzes with activity after work hours. The April board meeting drew more than 30 people.
Down a windy road with no street lights, the Waimanalo Neighborhood Board meeting at the National Guard Training Auditorium on the grounds of Bellows Air Force Station isn’t easily accessible for those without a car. Less than 10 people showed up for last month’s meeting.
Some boards struggle to retain members and attract young people. Forty percent of board members serving two-year terms in the 2014-2015 period were 64 or older. Only 6 percent were 18 to 30 years old, according to Neighborhood Commission data.
Boards have a minimum of nine members and a maximum of 19. The number is determined by a district’s population and geography.
As the current terms come to a close, some have as few as six members while others have all 19. As the first board ever created, Mililani/Waipiu/Melemanu board has an exception that allows it to have 23 members.
Hamamoto links low participation on neighborhood boards with Hawaii’s record low voter turnout. He and his staff of 13 people have made it their mission to reach out to the nearly 1 million people who live on Oahu.
They’ve visited more than 1,000 establishments islandwide to inform people about the boards, including doctors offices, golf courses, service clubs and cultural festivals.
“We’re boots on the ground,” Hamamoto said.
Elections begin Friday. They are conducted online and are open to all registered voters on Oahu. Mail-in ballots are also available, but require voters to call the ballot request hotline at 768-3763, with more directions at the city’s website.
Sen. Karl Rhoads spent 10 years on the Downtown-Chinatown Neighborhood Board before becoming a state representative. He’s now a state senator.
“It was neat to see him work his way up through the ranks,” said Hamamoto, a former member of the Downtown Neighborhood Board.
Dos Santos-Tam has similar sentiments about Rep. Takashi Ohno and Rep. Kaniela Ing, now a Maui leggislator, both of whom served alongside him on the Liliha Neighborhood Board.
Rhoads, Sen. Laura Theilen, Rep. Tom Brower, and City Councilman Brandon Elefante are among the elected officials who started their political careers on a neighborhood board.
Mayor Caldwell served on both the Kaimuki and Manoa neighborhood boards.
Marcus Paaluhi, now the chair of the Waianae Coast Neighborhood Board, ran for the state House last year but lost to Rep. Cedric Gates, who also once served as the chair of the board.
“It’s a good way to get your feet wet,” Paaluhi said.