Forget about cutting carbs, signing up for yoga, or practicing mindfulness in the New Year. If you really want an attainable resolution that will make a difference, commit now to greater civic engagement in 2019.

Ask yourself, who controls Hawaii today? It’s no secret that local government is rife with partisan operatives, corporate plants, and the friends and family members of elected officials. While most write off the ongoing kakistocracy as a function of Hawaii’s decline, the reality is that the absence of civic engagement creates a vacuum that is all too easy for special interests to fill.

As I have mentioned previously, the secret to success in Hawaii is simply showing up. Though we often criticize Hawaii government and elected officials for things being so bad, the reality is that policymakers rarely hear from the people who matter most – you.

Capitol Building 2018.

New laws may emanate from places like the State Capitol, but crucial decisions about how they’ll be implemented happen at the department level, where there’s another opportunity to shape public policy.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Though we collectively “blew it” last November with dismal voter turnout, 2019 presents us with great opportunities to get back on our feet and get involved. Want to take control of Hawaii? Here’s how:

• Track proposed departmental rulemaking changes and always submit comments.

Most people are not aware of the fact that the Legislature gives broad-brush authority to state executive departments to implement the laws they enact. As a former Democrat committee clerk, the most common and overlooked language we would place in bills was something along the lines of, “the department shall adopt rules pursuant to chapter 91 to effectuate the purposes of this chapter.”

The Hawaii Administrative Rules is the executive branch’s playbook. Rules, like laws, are first proposed in draft form, then presented to the public for comment prior to codification. Most citizens roll up shop and go home once the Legislature passes a bill they feel strongly about, but the real power rests with the rules that guide how laws are put into practice.

If you’re not tracking and commenting on proposed rules, you’re missing out on a crucial part of public policymaking. Unlike legislators, departmental administrators often find themselves in a pickle of trying to make heads or tails of the latest mandate, and really do need the crowd-sourced assistance of the public in developing policies. For people who pay attention, know what they want, and are willing to speak up, participating in rulemaking hearings is a powerful toehold into Hawaii governance.

In Hawaii, a toxic combination of cynicism and fear deters far too many people from civic engagement.

Citizens can read draft rules and see hearing notices for all departments by regularly visiting the lieutenant governor’s website for Administrative Rules Proposed Changes. By law (HRS 91-2.6), the full text of every proposed change is posted online for the public to review.

For example, the contentious topic of public and commercial activities on Mauna Kea, was posted as a hearing on the website’s link to the University of Hawaii (“Title 20”) in late September.

Each hearing notice features a phone number or email address that one can contact for both general inquiries and the submission of comments for the record.

• Participate in state meetings.

A great online resource to bookmark is the State of Hawaii’s Calendar of Events because it allows the public to see all the meetings of boards, commissions, and even task forces itemized chronologically. With the exception of executive sessions, the majority of meetings are open to the public and permit oral or written testimony on any agenda item.

For people who are willing to go the extra mile and put their talents or special knowledge to use, there are always vacancies on state boards and commissions. Sometimes, having a seat at the table to shape policy in Hawaii is as simple as sending an application to the governor’s office.

Check the most recent vacancy list published by the governor to see which seats are open and what kind of qualifications they’re looking for – you might be surprised to find something right up your alley of expertise.

Then-committee clerk Danny de Gracia, right of podium, listens to then-House Speaker Calvin Say speak during a House Filipino Caucus rally for care home operators in 2006 at the Capitol.

Danny de Gracia/Civil Beat

• If you live on Oahu, participate in the neighborhood board system.

From now until Feb. 15, Honolulu residents can register online or by written application to be candidates for the neighborhood board. The neighborhood board system is one of the most useful community engagement platforms available, because it allows ordinary people to speak on issues that matter to them and receive monthly briefings from representatives of state, county and federal government.

Neighborhood board members are elected by residents of their district to serve as community representatives. Sometimes there are also vacancies on the boards, and residents can simply attend their district’s next meeting and be elected either by default, or by vote of the members present. While they don’t possess the lawmaking authority of the City Council or Hawaii Legislature, neighborhood boards are great for getting quick results where it matters most.

When smelly trash was strewn across a large section of Lower Waipahu a few years ago, I raised the concern at my board, and in short order, the city and county worked to clean up the mess. This may seem trivial, but it demonstrates that anyone can get relief if they’re willing to say something.

Many Honolulu residents suffer in silence without reporting street potholes, graffiti epidemics or other community nuisances, when they should be speaking up at board meetings. It works.

• Believe that anything is possible for people who show up.

The late President George H.W. Bush once said, “the heart of our government is not here in Washington, it’s in every county office, every town, every city across this land. Wherever the people of America are, that’s where the heart of our government is.”

In Hawaii, a toxic combination of cynicism and fear deters far too many people from civic engagement. Change often comes slowly, but change can never come if we don’t show up and speak out.

There are many excuses for sitting on the sidelines for another year in Hawaii, but sooner or later someone needs to act. At the heart of our future, change begins with you.

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