Hawaii County voters will decide the fate of 16 county charter amendments that will appear on their ballots for the Nov. 3 general election. The proposals ask voters to consider changes on issues ranging from disciplinary action over high-profile public figures, the spending discretion of a fund dedicated to buying land, and how long council members should stay in their seats once elected, two or four years.

A simple majority vote of support is required to change anything in the charter, the county’s governing document. Proposals are vetted by the county’s Charter Commission and approved by the County Council before they appear on the ballots, which get mailed to voters Oct. 7.

Other proposals this year are more of the housekeeping variety, such as clarifying certain definitions or putting into writing procedures that have already long been practiced.

But a proposal that stems from a one-time controversial topic on the Big Island is Proposal 7. The so-called Ruggles Rule asks whether the County Council should be able to suspend a council member without pay for disorderly or contemptuous behavior or who fails to attend three or more regularly scheduled council meetings without being excused from attendance by the council chair.

It stems from a 2018 dust-up when former Councilwoman Jen Ruggles suddenly stopped voting on issues because she said she would be violating international law and committing war crimes against the Hawaiian Kingdom.

Vote By Mail Ballot UPS Collection Box Elections 2020
Mail-in ballots go out Oct. 7 to Hawaii County voters. Kuʻu Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2020

Ruggles’ revelation came near the end of her first council term, and she had already declared she wouldn’t be seeking re-election. But for around four months, she stopped attending meetings or taking up council business.

The council, meanwhile, didn’t have in place rules that could quickly punish Ruggles for dereliction of duty. Yet, the freshman council member was still able to collect her council paycheck.

“I think I can safely say the council felt sorry for the people of the district Jen represented,” Hawaii County Council Chair Aaron Chung said of the impetus for the proposed amendment. “They were without representation.”

Disciplinary Power

Like the Ruggles Rule, another pair of proposals aim to give clear disciplinary power to governing bodies.

Proposal 4 is one of them. It would allow the Police Commission to discipline the police chief and the Fire Commission to discipline the fire chief, in addition to their current authority to hire and fire them.

Both Hawaii County’s police and fire chiefs said they supported the change on the grounds that it stands to reason the commission that could fire them should have disciplinary powers as well. It clarifies to whom the chiefs are accountable.

“In my opinion, having the Fire Commission be the accountable body in investigating infractions and if needed, hand out corrective action will help alleviate the confusion of who is the direct supervisor of the fire chief, the Fire Commission or the mayor,” Hawaii County Fire Chief Darren Rosario said.

Ethics Violations

Proposal 16 pertains to the county’s Ethics Board. It would give more teeth to a board that’s so far been largely viewed as a paper tiger.

The Board of Ethics rules on potential ethics code violations by public officials. Up until now, however, the board’s decisions haven’t carried with them any monetary fines – and in the public’s opinion, any real weight. The rulings are often seen more as an official scolding rather than a seriously punitive measure.

The amendment would add language to the charter that would clarify that the rules of procedure of the Board of Ethics shall have the force of law and grant the Board of Ethics authority to impose civil fines for violations of the Code of Ethics.

“The Board of Ethics needs to have remedies available to it to both handle and deter violations,” the Charter Commission wrote in support of the proposal.

Term Lengths

Another proposal asks if council members should hold on to their seats longer once they’re elected. Currently, the term is for two years, but Proposal 5 would change the terms starting in 2022 to four years.

Council members would still only be allowed to hold on to their seats for a total of eight years, as it would allow two four-year terms instead of four two-year posts.

Proponents say two-year terms are too short to accomplish much in the slow-moving legislating process, while opponents say the shorter stints ensure politicians stay accountable to their constituency.

Kona-based Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas won reelection to her second term during the primary election Aug. 8. She said she understands the logic that shorter terms can hold politicians accountable to voters, but that she favors a switch to four-year terms.

The need to concentrate on reelection beginning 14 months into one’s first term distracts from accomplishing legislative goals, she said. It disrupts working continuity and turns the focus of the job away from service to that of campaigning.

“You try to keep moving forward but you have to watch your back,” she said. “It becomes more politics than public service.”

A report by the Hawaii County Finance Department shows that most amendment proposals, if passed, would have minimal impact on the county’s budget.

The financial impact estimates won’t be on the ballot itself, but the public can view the report as well as the ballot questions and explanations here.

Open Space, IT, Disasters And More

The remaining amendment proposals are:

  • Proposal 1 RELATING TO TECHNICAL, LINGUISTIC, AND GRAMMATICAL REVISIONS OF THE CHARTER: Shall the Charter of the County of Hawaii be amended by making various technical, linguistic, and grammatical revisions throughout the Charter?
  • Proposal 2 RELATING TO COUNCIL MEETING LOCATIONS: Shall the Charter of the County of Hawaii be amended to require that the Hawaii County Council hold an equal number of its regularly scheduled meetings in East Hawaii and West Hawaii? The council voluntarily meets every other meeting in Kona, but this would put into writing what’s now being practiced.
  • Proposal 3 RELATING TO THE DEPARTMENT OF RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT: Shall the Charter of the County of Hawaii be amended by clarifying the Department of Research and Development’ s powers, duties, and functions?
  • Proposal 6 RELATING TO THE PUBLIC ACCESS, OPEN SPACE, AND NATURAL RESOURCES PRESERVATION FUND: Shall the Charter of the County of Hawaii be amended to allow monies in the Public Access, Open Space, and Natural Resources Preservation Fund to pay salary, wages, and benefits for staff dedicated to supporting the Public Access, Open Space, and Natural Resources Preservation and Maintenance Funds? Opponents have said they are concerned that the shift would mean money would go to staff instead of buying and preserving land, which is the reason the fund was established.
  • Proposal 8 RELATING TO THE DEPARTMENT OF INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY: Shall the Charter of the County of Hawaii be amended by removing Department of Information Technology oversight of the information systems maintained by the Office of the Prosecuting Attorney and the Police Department?
  • Proposal 9 RELATING TO THE ESTABLISHMENT OF AN EMERGENCY DISASTER FUND: Shall the Charter of the County of Hawaii be amended by establishing a Disaster and Emergency Fund for specific and limited purposes, to be funded by an annual appropriation of a minimum of one percent of real property tax revenues? The priciest of the charter amendments, this would earmark 1% of real property tax revenues to be set aside for a disaster and emergency fund until that fund reaches at least $20 million. Currently $250,000 is contributed to the Disaster and Emergency fund annually as required by Hawaii County Code. Right now, the Disaster and Emergency Fund has a fund balance of roughly $6.5 million. This balance has steadily increased since it was formed in 2006 and the balance has exceeded $5 million since 2014, according to the county Finance Department report.
  • Proposal 10 RELATING TO THE PUBLIC ACCESS, OPEN SPACE, AND NATURAL RESOURCES PRESERVATION MAINTENANCE FUND: Shall the Charter of the County of Hawaii be amended to provide the Department of Finance full management responsibilities for the Public Access, Open Space, and Natural Resources Preservation Maintenance Fund and to expand the purposes for which the fund may be expended? This proposal would change the responsibility of the maintenance fund from the Department of Parks and Recreation to the Finance Department, according to the Charter Commission.
  • Proposal 11 RELATING TO MANDATORY CHARTER REVIEWS: Shall the Charter of the County of Hawaii be amended to align the process by which the County Charter Commission conducts its review of the Hawaii County Charter with the current requirements of State law?
  • Proposal 12 RELATING TO CORPORATION COUNSEL: Shall the Charter of the County of Hawaii be amended to require that qualifications to serve as the Corporation Counsel include being licensed to practice law for at least five years and having at least three years of supervisory experience? This proposal was brought forth by the Corporation Counsel and adds minimum requirements for the position, according to the Charter Commission description.
  • Proposal 13 RELATING TO THE HAWAII FIRE DEPARTMENT: Shall the Charter of the County of Hawaii be amended to modify Fire Department functions, Fire Chief qualifications, and Fire Commission powers and duties? This would add water safety as a core function of the fire department, provide for additional minimum qualifications for the fire chief selection, and clarify commission powers, duties, and functions, according to the Charter Commission description.
  • Proposal 14 RELATING TO MEMBERSHIP ON BOARDS AND COMMISSIONS: Shall the Charter of the County of Hawaii be amended to remove political party membership limits for the makeup of County boards and commissions?
  • Proposal 15 RELATING TO THE CAPITAL BUDGET AND CAPITAL PROGRAMS: Shall the Charter of the County of Hawaii be amended to require that capital improvement priorities be based on criteria aligned with the County General Plan, County community development plans, emergency expenditures, and other pertinent functional plans?

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