Voters in Maui County will decide on significant changes to the structure of government and other issues when they cast their ballots in the Nov. 3 general election.
Meanwhile, at least three interest groups are flooding mailboxes and webpages trying to influence voters one way or another. Two of the groups, which want to see all the amendments pass, are backed by community organizations with histories of taking the county to court over certain developments.
The third group wants to see all the measures fail, and is funded by a mysterious nonprofit that has spent big to oust a coalition of county council members who pushed forward the proposals.
Seven charter amendment questions appear on ballots sent to Maui voters Thursday. They include proposals to increase the flow of money to an affordable housing fund, restructure the managing director’s position, create a Department of Agriculture, set term limits and settle legal disputes over county laws.
All the charter amendment questions cleared the council earlier this year, with five of those proposed amendments passing the council during a July meeting. Most were approved by a supermajority of the council in 6-to-3 votes.
Maui Mayor Mike Victorino has not supported the charter amendments in a year he says residents are still distracted by the coronavirus pandemic.
“I did not recommend that the council push to get these charter amendments before voters this year while there’s plenty of fiscal uncertainty and under the backdrop of a pandemic,” Victorino wrote in an op-ed in the Oct. 3 edition of the Maui News.
That same day, Council Chair Alice Lee, who voted in favor of all the amendments, published an overview of the charter questions in the Maui newspaper. Lee had the statements in the overview vetted by county attorneys, according to a press release.
Perhaps the most complex of the questions facing voters has to do with restructuring the managing director’s position.
If voters approve the charter amendment, the managing director would take over day-to-day operations of the county. The mayor could hire and fire the director, unless two-thirds of the council overrides the mayor’s decision to fire the director.
One of the most drastic changes it would make is decoupling the appointment of department heads to mayoral terms. Right now, once a new mayor is elected, the old mayor’s Cabinet loses their positions.
If the amendment passes, the department heads would not lose their jobs once the mayor’s term ends.
Proponents of the amendment hope it would depoliticize the appointment process and help find more candidates from the public and private sectors.
“We don’t want politics making decisions about who gets permits to build where,” said Mark Hyde, chair of the ballot committee Holomua Ohana for Professional Management. “We hire people based on qualification for jobs. It also opens these jobs up to everybody; you don’t have to know the mayor to get considered.”
The mayor would need to convene an advisory group of citizens and the council chair to search for a managing director. The mayor could then set a contract for the director, which would need council approval.
The managing director would also get a say in the hiring of department heads.
The managing director question is getting interest from a new ballot issue committee called Vote No on Charter Amendments Hui O Maui Nui We Can’t Afford It.
Buddy Nobriga, the group’s chairperson and Roselani Ice Cream operations manager, said he started the committee because he worried the complicated language in many of the charter amendments may not be clear to voters.
The group reported receiving $20,000 from Hui O Maui, a nonprofit set up by a San Francisco attorney with ties to timeshare groups on Maui.
The Hui group has mailed flyers with the headline “Don’t Vote Your Rights Away” and information that opponents contend is misleading.
For example, the flyer states that the mayor would lose power over the managing director, who would be hired by the council.
The charter amendment language states that the mayor would hire the managing director, act as that person’s supervisor and send their contract to the council for approval.
The Hui O Maui flyer also states that the council would have unprecedented power over the executive branch, which Hyde says wouldn’t be the case because the council’s only duty would be to approve the contract between the managing director and the mayor.
Nobriga still worries about other sections of the charter amendment, which would give the managing director certain duties currently performed by the mayor such as oversight and assignments for departments.
Nobriga also worries that some of the charter amendments, specifically those proposing a county manager and one proposing an agricultural department, could add costs.
“It’s really affordability and our right to choose as voters,” Nobriga said. “We would like to educate people, and (the amendments) are something they should look into.”
The Hui O Maui flyer also tells voters to vote “no” on all other charter amendments, though it’s unlikely imposing term limits would result in added costs for county residents.
Two other groups, Holomua Ohana For Professional Management and Grow Maui Jobs in Local Food and Affordable Homes Production want all seven charter amendments to pass.
The Holomua Ohana group’s biggest donor was Michael Williams, who runs the Grow Maui jobs group and donated $2,600 to the ballot committee. Williams is also the treasurer for Holomua Ohana.
Holomua Ohana reported spending $8,358 on newspaper, web and radio ads to support the amendments. The Grow Maui Jobs group reported spending $645 on Facebook and newspaper ads.
Grow Maui Jobs reported receiving $11,900 from the Maui Tomorrow Foundation, a community group that has brought lawsuits against building developments on Maui. Williams is also president of that group.
The Hui group did not report any spending, but the reports all the groups filed only cover the period between Aug. 9 and Sept. 26. Another report on PAC spending set to come out Oct. 26 should reveal how much the committees spent trying to influence voters while ballots were in their hands.
Voters will also be asked if a new Department of Agriculture should “develop a sustainable regional agricultural system for Maui County?”
It’s a question John Dobovan plans to answer with a “yes.”
Dobovan belongs to the Hawaii Farmers Union United. Maui chapters of the group all support the charter amendment.
Dobovan grows trout and watercress at his commercial aquaponics farm in Kula. He said that he and farmers he knows all support the charter amendment because they want greater representation in county government and a helping hand in streamlining permitting processes and getting access to grant funds.
“Most work dawn to dusk seven days a week,” Dobovan said of his colleagues. “We don’t have a lot of time to scroll the internet.”
But the farming community in the county appears split on the issue.
While chapters of the HFUU support the amendment, a poll of members of the Maui County Farm Bureau found that 84% of respondents did not support creating a new Department of Agriculture.
The new department would be tasked with increasing opportunities in agriculture, boosting food security and diversifying forms of agriculture.
Some raised concerns with the council that the department would throw up added regulations that farmers would have to contend with, but the council added a line to the amendment to say that the department’s primary purpose would be for advocacy and not regulation.
The major uncertainty, however, is how much the new department might cost. It’s one reason some have raised objections over the proposed department.
Councilmembers, both those in support and opposed to the amendment, also had concerns about county finances.
“It’s hard to spend money to build government when we should just take that money and give it to agriculture programs,” Councilmember Yuki Lei Sugimura, who voted against all the charter amendments, said during a July 14 meeting.
Another ballot question asks if the charter should be changed “to establish standards for interpreting and complying with the Charter, including by requiring a viable judicial action to be filed within 30 days to seek clarity when a conflict in the interpretation of the Charter is identified?”
The amendment lays out how the council and administration could settle legal disputes. In 2019, a conflict over interpretations of the charter arose when the council voted to settle a case involving the county’s use of injection wells.
Another charter amendment would give the council more power in choosing members of the Charter Commission, which is tasked with reviewing the county charter once a decade.
Currently, the mayor gets to appoint all 11 members to the commission, who are then confirmed by the council. If the charter amendment passes, the council would get to appoint nine members and the mayor would get two.
Voters will also decide whether or not to increase the minimum deposit from property taxes to an affordable housing fund from 2% to 3%.
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