In 1972, with the growth of the island of Oahu and there being only one City and County of Honolulu, it was found that establishing satellite citizen groups was needed to help support the main City Council.

Originally it was believed that there would be more incorporated cities around the islands and the City Council as we know it today used to be known as a County Board of Supervisors. This would be the governing body that would oversee a number of city councils in a particular county.

As an alternative, the County Board of Supervisors became the Honolulu City Council.

As Oahu grew, the need for local representation and a conduit for resident voices to get to their council member in Honolulu became self-evident. Rather than expanding the City Council system, the neighborhood board was created.

Fast forward a few decades and these important volunteer bodies are now serving more than just a neighborhood and in some instances many communities within their district.

Many of our elected officials cut their teeth on local politics starting with being elected to these boards and growing their constituent base. It is common for these boards to advocate for their communities, draft and approve resolutions that the City Council may adopt as a council resolution and in some instances new ordinances are born.

At a Waimanalo Neighborhood Board meeting in 2018. Should such boards be called community councils instead? Natanya Freidheim/Civil Beat

Recently the title of “neighborhood board” has become an outdated description given exponential population growth. There are home owner associations that represent many neighborhoods their members live in privately, and that they oversee.

And therein lies the confusion. A more authentic title for neighborhood boards of elected residents on island would to be to call them “community councils.”

As Relevant As Ever

Over the years there has been a question as to whether having neighborhood boards is relevant and effective. The answer is yes.

Some City Council districts are so large that there are up to four neighborhood boards that support one City Council member. Neighborhood boards aren’t going away any time soon. The City Council only meets during the day when most residents are working.

Neighborhood boards generally meet in the evenings and allow residents to make their concerns public. They are a forum for the representatives of elected officials to deliver reports on the goings on in their offices and ask for assistance.

Neighborhood boards now have committees ranging from Hawaiian affairs to transportation and public safety and others. Neighborhood boards write resolutions for the return of crosswalks in Makakilo, and ask the state Legislature for a study to replace the control tower at Kalaeloa.

The reach of the neighborhood board goes beyond just the City Council and will also address state issues as they present themselves at the legislative level.

Rather than expanding the City Council system, the neighborhood board was created.

Senate Bill 2938 is a good example of a senate bill in this 2020 session (before it was suspended indefinitely due to coronavirus) that was born from the Kapolei Neighborhood Board when a resident pointed out that the World War II-era control tower could never be an effective backup for Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in the event of a natural disaster. There is even federal money to pay for it, avoiding strapping Hawaii residents with more taxes.

Of course these boards of volunteers at times create their own internal disharmony and create unhappy residents just like their bigger counterparts.

The Neighborhood Commission oversees Sunshine Laws, mediates internal disputes, metes out discipline and provides oversight so that residents are being treated with courtesy and fairness. This would not change other than it would become the Community Council Commission.

Right now neighborhood boards are looking for ways to update their images to more closely describe their members and areas they represent. The term “community council” is a forward-moving idea, a rich and progressive update to an outdated title.

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