Hawaii is in a unique situation when it comes to civic engagement — record low voter turnout, contentious issues like rail or pesticides, an overwhelmingly dominant political party, among other things.

But a conference this week at the University of Hawaii Manoa hopes to improve the outlook for success by exploring practical ways of improving public participation in significant civic issues.

Peter Adler, a professional mediator and organizer of the event, has seen his share of public meetings turn into “yell fests.” Opinions, not facts, dominate the debate.

“It’s never perfect,” Adler says. “Democracy is a messy process.”

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell testifies about rail before the Hawaii Legislature. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Hawaii has some unique challenges that deter civic engagement, such as the high cost of living. With the rising income disparity in Hawaii, Adler said, people may be fatigued from working two jobs or caring for kids.

And it doesn’t help that the Democratic Party has essentially run the state for decades, leaving little room for diversity of thought, he said.

People seem to have overblown fears that all public decisions are made behind closed doors, he said.

That can discourage people from trying to participate, though Adler said there is sometimes a need for privacy and negotiation so decision-makers can candidly “hash out details.”

Conference Details

“I believe there’s actually more openness (in the public process) than people think,” Adler said. “On the other hand, I understand why we should be worried about it and vigilant.”

Public dialogue in the Aloha State may not be as raucous as it is on the mainland, but he worries that may change if more people don’t become energized about civic engagement.

Adler recalled the time a colleague was asked to moderate a meeting about a proposal to manage Kauai waters. But that meeting was stopped by a Native Hawaiian group that claimed sovereignty over the island’s resources. The group said others had no right to talk about those things.

That action prevented others from learning more about the issue during  the informational briefing.

Members of the public sit at a 2015 Public Utilities Commission evidentiary hearing. 

On the other hand, Adler once was hired to facilitate a mandatory public meeting about the transport of hazardous waste through ocean waters. Despite lots of preparation, he said, nobody showed up.

Other efforts at encouraging public dialogue have been more successful.

He pointed to the Nai Aupuni aha, or convention, in 2016 that successfully brought together people with differing viewpoints and led to the creation of a Native Hawaiian constitution and statement of independence.

On the Big Island, he said the community group Envision Maunakea is trying to foster a discussion around long-term plans for the whole mountain — not just the summit where the controversial Thirty Meter Telescope is planned to be built.

The purpose of the conference is to “try to move beyond platitudes and see if there are actionable strategies,” he said.

The conference, slated for Friday and Saturday, is sponsored by the Accord 3.0 Network, University of Hawaii Public Policy Center, Honolulu Civil Beat, Ulupono Initiative, ThinkTech Hawaii and the UH William S. Richardson School of Law.

Speakers include Colin Moore, director of the UH Public Policy Center, former Congressman Ed Case and Kaleiaina Lee, chair of the 2016 Aha, or Native Hawaiian constitutional convention.

Conference organizers hope the end result will be a list of recommendations about how to improve the public process.

For more on the conference, read this article written by Moore of the UH Public Policy Center. 

The Ulupono Initiative was founded by Pierre and Pam Omidyar. Pierre Omidyar is the CEO and publisher of Civil Beat. 

Here’s a full agenda for the event:

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