LIHUE, Kauai — In addition to the presidential election and races for a plethora of state and county elected offices, voters come Nov. 3 will choose among six obscure amendments to the Kauai County Charter.
Three of them are arguably housekeeping measures that clean up or make minor repairs to language already in the charter. The three others are more important because they rectify defects in how the county chooses high-level managers for critical agencies.
But none of those three changes is dramatic or would make much operational difference to the affected police and water departments or the county engineer’s office. No organized process attempts to educate voters on these measures, and none is dramatic enough to have spawned any organized advocacy or opposition.
Indeed, this year’s ballot will be daunting, largely because the entire country is preoccupied by the presidential race. Two experts on local elections say the result may be that voters lose interest in filling out their ballots before they get to the charter amendments or reflexively vote no.
Ballots are expected to be mailed out to Kauai voters on Oct. 9, according to the state Elections Office.
State Sen. Kai Kahele seems almost certain to be elected to the U.S. House seat occupied by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. The 2nd Congressional District seat represents the neighbor islands and rural Oahu.
In Kauai County, there are virtual shoo-in candidates for six of the seven County Council seats. Just three candidates — Jade Battad, Billy DeCosta and Addison Bulosan — seem as of this week to be contenders for the toss-up seat.
COVID-19 has inhibited vibrant, in-person community forums for the council races.
“I think this is generally a problem in Hawaii,” said Colin Moore, a University of Hawaii expert on state elections. Absent organized advocacy or opposition materials, he said, “voters are either going to ignore them or say no, which is why it’s really hard to get these administrative changes made.”
Hawaii also has failed to produce any kind of impartial, comprehensive voter guide that many states, like California, distribute routinely well before elections.
As to the more housekeeping proposed Kauai charter amendments:
• Question 1 sets a time limit for filing negligence claims against the county. It’s on the ballot simply to make sure the Kauai charter conforms to state law.
• Question 3 would extend to the county managing director’s office and other top officials the requirement to file ethics disclosures. The problem, said a member of the county Charter Review Commission, is that when the managing director’s office was created a few years ago, officials simply forgot to put in ethics disclosure language.
• Question 4 slightly alters the time limit for filling a vacancy in the office of prosecuting attorney. County Prosecutor Justin Kollar said the language is necessary to clarify who could take over if the prosecutor departs and creates a vacancy of less than 18 months.
• Question 2 would require that the chief of police have 15 years of actual experience as a police officer and a bachelor’s degree. The Police Commission decided to ask for the change after members realized that although Chief Todd Raybuck, who was hired more than a year ago, more than meets that standard, the actual language of the charter did not require it.
In the process of hiring Raybuck, said Mary Kay Hertog, a longtime Police Commission member and its former chair, “it became clear that, given the charter requirements, someone who has worked in a police department, but not as a police officer, would be able to apply for the chief of police position.”
• Questions 5 and 6 affect qualifications for manager and chief engineer of the water department and for the county engineer. The county has had trouble attracting and retaining qualified people in those two positions because the current charter requires that they be licensed engineers and county executive salary schedules have proven insufficient in attracting candidates.
The county engineer position has been vacant since February 2016, a county spokesperson said, and the water department top job has frequently been occupied by people in acting capacities.
But Jan TenBruggencate, a Charter Review Commission member, said the commission had concluded that what both positions require more than an engineering background is experience in personnel management and overall public administration.
“These (two jobs) are, for the most part, no longer engineering positions,” he said. “An engineer willing to take one of these jobs for the salaries they pay ($119,000 for the water department and $137,000 for the county engineer) is not going to be someone capable of running a large employee base.”
Five days after the most recent water department general manager, Bryan Wienand, testified before the Charter Review Commission against the charter change, he resigned for personal reasons. More than nine months later, the job was still vacant.
Gary Hooser, a former County Council member who now heads the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action, said the question of whether county voters will seem to care about the amendments is a valid one.
“It all seems very predictable and, if not for the presidential race, the turnout might be very light,” Hooser said. “My guess is there will be a lot of blank votes and perhaps a disproportionate number of no votes as well. I would think that many people would rather vote no or skip questions that are technical or difficult to understand changes to the status quo.”
That bothers TenBruggencate. In the past, he said, Kauai’s abysmal voter turnout numbers have meant that a small segment of the electorate has had a disproportionate influence on ballot decisions. This year, he said, the intense interest in the presidential race may motivate more people to vote.
“I take the optimistic view that the political furor that’s going on nationally and even here is a good thing,” he said. “If you can get people to take the time to look at the ballot, they at least will take the time to give it some attention.”
Whether TenBruggencate is too optimistic will be known on Election Day.
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