LIHUE, Kauai — An initiative to repeal term limits for members of the Kauai County Council is the most closely watched item of six proposed amendments to the county charter on the Nov. 6 ballot.
If passed, the measure would erase a term limit system approved more than 2-1 by voters in 2006. Not surprisingly, the amendment is largely the creation of Ross Kagawa, the only current member of the council who faces being term-limited out in 2020.
A total of six charter amendments appear on the ballot. Two merely clean up or eliminate outdated language that has remained in the charter for years without anyone bothering to remove it. Those relate to the county public defender — a responsibility now filled by the state — and a provision for creation of a municipal electric power authority.
Kauai County Councilman Ross Kagawa argued in favor of asking voters to end council term limits.
That section was rendered superfluous more than a decade ago by creation of the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative, the state’s only publicly owned electric company.
Passage of these two measures, said Jan Tenbruggencate, a Charter Review Commission member, would “simply clean up the charter by taking out language that has no purpose there.”
Voters here have repeatedly turned down amendments to increase the length of County Council terms from two to four years and rejected term limit proposals on the ballot in 1992 and 1996.
The current term limits allow council members to serve a maximum of four two-year terms.
Term limit repeal was placed on the ballot by the County Council itself — rather than through the more common route of approval by the Charter Review Commission. The council approved the measure in late January on a 5-2 vote, with just council members Mason Chock and JoAnn Yukimura, who is terming out, voting against it.
“We do not need an arbitrary term limit number,” Kagawa said at the Jan. 24 council meeting at which the plan was approved. “I realize that Maui, Honolulu and Hawaii Island have (term limits). So what? We do not have to follow them.
“Do we need term limits to give new people the chance? I think the facts show we do not.”
At the same hearing, Chock addressed a key argument against term limits — that they turn out legislators before they acquire sufficient experience and institutional memory to do their jobs effectively. But to solve the problem, Chock argued, “I would prefer to consider staggered terms and things of that nature.”
If the amendment fails, Kagawa would begin his final term later this year, assuming he wins re-election.
Other measures of note include charter amendments that would:
• Eliminate the Zoning Board of Appeals, a panel that was just created two years ago by an earlier Charter Review Commission proposal. The Planning Department argued that the board was necessary because the county was spending too much money on hearing officers to preside over appeals of zoning rulings.
While creation of the board won broad praise at the time, the concept turned out to be a noble experiment that died because the county administration was unable to find a single person to serve on the seven-member panel. The reason was logical enough. Prospective board members were asked to commit to 20 hours of work per week, with no compensation. More than that, the board would have had to be composed primarily of people with specialized backgrounds in planning and engineering.
The county is considering hiring a full-time lawyer to act as a permanent zoning appeals hearing officer.
• Make it easier to spend money that accumulates in the real estate tax-supported public access, open space and natural resource preservation fund not just to acquire land to be preserved, but to make improvements. The issue arose after the county attempted to force a landowner to open a beach access trail in Koloa.
• Give the county Salary Commission the legal power to set maximum salaries for all elected and appointed officials. The commission is currently limited to making recommendations, which has resulted repeatedly in rejection of its reports and surveys by County Council members reluctant to vote in favor of improving compensation.
Giving the Salary Commission the power to actually set salaries — thus taking it away from the council and mayor—represents another manifestation of Kauai’s unique commitment to limited power for top elected officials. Under existing law, only the Fire Commission and Police Commission can hire or fire their chiefs and only the Planning Commission can hire or fire the planning director.
It’s true that the police, fire and planning commissions are appointed by the mayor and subject to council confirmation, but using that process to veto any decision by one of the commissions is impracticable,according to current and past members of the Charter Review Commission and longtime political observers.
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