Elective offices in all four counties have one thing in common: they are all nonpartisan.

But, depending on the office and the county, some have term limits and some do not. Lengths of service vary.

Voters in three counties this fall will have the chance to change that through four charter amendment questions — one for the City and County of Honolulu, one for Hawaii County and two for Maui County.

Charter amendment questions require a simple majority to pass or fail. You can see what questions voters are being asked in Civil Beat’s guide to the general election ballot.

City And County Of Honolulu

On Oahu, mayor and City Council members are limited to two consecutive four-year terms. That is not the case for the county’s other elected office, city prosecutor.

On the Nov. 3 ballot, voters will be asked this question: “Shall the Revised City Charter be amended to establish for the Prosecuting Attorney of the City and County of Honolulu a term limit of two consecutive full four-year terms, the same term limit as is applicable to the Mayor and Councilmembers of the City and County of Honolulu?”

The idea comes from Councilman Ron Menor. Resolution 19-35, which was proposed last year and approved in January, warns of prosecutors becoming “entrenched in power and thereby in a position to abuse the powers entrusted to them by the voters.”

Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro. 18 may 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Keith Kaneshiro, the Honolulu prosecutor, is the inspiration for a proposed charter amendment to limit city prosecutors to two four-year terms. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The reso does not mention Keith Kaneshiro, but it’s pretty obvious that he was the inspiration for the proposal. The city prosecutor has been on paid leave since March 2019 because he received a target letter in a federal criminal investigation.

Former judge Steve Alm and former prosecutor Megan Kau are competing this fall to replace Kaneshiro, who did not seek reelection.

In her testimony in support of Resolution 19-35, Sharlene Chun-Lum argued its passage would result in the same standards for all elected officials in city government and “will help increase public confidence in the system.”

She wrote, “The possibility of an abuse of power by the City’s Prosecuting Attorney, who has the authority to initiate criminal proceedings and to threaten the initiation of criminal proceedings against any person within the City, has come into question, especially in light of the case of the Kealohas.”

Former Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha and his then wife, former Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Katherine Kealoha, are currently awaiting sentencing on their federal convictions of conspiracy and obstruction of justice.

Another testifier, Lynne Matusow, however, opposed the reso, calling it “a knee jerk reaction to Keith Kaneshiro.” Former prosecutor and mayor Peter Carlisle — he is supporting Kau’s campaign — argued that term limits would “harm Honolulu because there is only a small pool of people who qualify to run.”

Nevertheless, the Council voted 8-0 (Menor himself was absent) to approve the reso and put it on the November ballot.

The question on term limits for the prosecuting attorney is one of four charter questions for Honolulu voters. City Clerk Glen Takahashi said his office plans to place the full text of the questions on the city’s elections website as early as this week. Printed versions will be made available upon request.

Hawaii County

Mayors on the Big Island are limited to two four-year terms while prosecutors have no limit on the number of four-year terms they may serve, according to the Hawaii County Charter and State Elections Office.

County Council members, however, are currently allowed to serve two-year terms for no more than eight consecutive years. A charter question on the Hawaii County ballot this November (there are a total of 16 questions) asks, “Shall the Charter of the County of Hawaii be amended to change the term of office of Council Members to four years from the current two years, starting with the 2022 County Council term, with no current member serving more that eight consecutive years?”

In 2018, the county’s charter commission outlined “good arguments” for retaining the two-year term, including “making a Council person pay more attention to the requirements and problems of his/her district since the ensuing election occurs rapidly.”

But a majority of the commission felt that a four-year election cycle “outweighed the benefits” of a two-year election cycle. Among the reasons cited: “For Council members elected for the first time, four years gives that person a better opportunity to learn the parliamentary procedures and to gain a more in depth understanding of the issues facing the County at that time.”

Hawaii County Clerk Jon Henricks said there wasn’t much public interest in this particular charter question.

But three people submitted testimony, including Tanya Yamanaka Aynessazian of Keeau. She told the Hawaii County Charter Commission she opposes the change in terms.

“Politicians are like diapers. They need to be changed regularly.” — Jim Albertini

“If council members did what the majority of their constituents wanted, there would be no need to fundraise, campaign and seek corporate backers while in office,” she wrote. “This is simply an excuse. Also unacceptable is the excuse that council members need time to learn how the system works, and by the time they do, they are campaigning again. If that is the case, then the system needs to change and said council members should call the process out and propose changes to correct this, or the wrong people are running and getting elected into offices in the first place. Civil service in elected positions is not a career — terms should remain at two years.”

Jim Albertini of Kurtistown also opposed the term change: “The more people vote the better. We don’t need more career politicians. Politicians are like diapers. They need to be changed regularly.”

Rick Warshauer said, “Four years is too long of a wait to vote out a poorly performing County councilor. We have all seen more than a few where even the current two-year term was interminably long. If they do not want to run for a two-year term, they can pass, and we will all be better off for it.”

Maui County

Maui, Lanai and Molokai voters will be asked to change charter language regarding the terms of the mayor and County Council members.

(The Maui prosecutor is appointed by the mayor with council approval.)

Currently, Maui’s charter reads, “A mayor shall not serve more than two consecutive full terms of office.” A term is for four years.

The charter also states this: “No member of the county council shall serve more than five consecutive full terms of office.” A term is for two years.

Maui has a total of seven charter questions this fall, including these two:

  • “Shall the Charter be amended to establish term limits for Council members by limiting the number of terms a person may serve as a Council member to five full terms?”
  • “Shall the Charter be amended to establish term limits for the Mayor by limiting the number of terms a person may serve as Mayor to two full terms?”

What is missing in those two questions is the word “consecutive,” which would be repealed from the charter should the measures pass. In their resolutions for the mayor and council, County Council members say that the proposals “establish stricter term limits.”

The vote on the mayor’s terms was 7 to 2, while the vote on the the County Council members terms was 6 to 3. No testimony about the resos is listed on the county’s website regarding the charter questions.

Kauai County, which includes Niihau, has six charter questions this fall, but none involve term limits.

According to the county’s charter, the Kauai mayor is limited to two four-year terms, while County Council members may serve no more than four consecutive two-year terms.

The prosecuting attorney for Kauai County is elected to a four-year term, for which there are no limits.

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