The process of redrawing Hawaii’s political boundaries could extend into next year because of a delay in getting population data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The Hawaii Reapportionment Commission on Monday got to work setting out a timeline that allows it to complete reapportionment and redistricting in a reasonable timeframe given the delays in federal data.

The commission also divided work among its members, despite objections that much of the commission’s work will take place behind closed doors.

The Hawaii Reapportionment Commission, a nine-member panel that meets once each decade to redraw Hawaii’s political maps, likely will not finish its work until the end of February. By law, the commission must have new political boundaries drawn for legislative districts by mid-September.

Hawaii Reapportionment Commission Chairman Mark Mugiishi presided over his first commission meeting Monday. The state panel set out a timeline for redistricting and divided work among its members. Screenshot/2021

But the federal government is not expected to have reapportionment data to states until mid-August. So the commission voted unanimously on Monday to ask the state Attorney General’s Office to petition the Hawaii Supreme Court to extend the deadline.

The commissioners plans to ask the court to allow it to have a draft reapportionment plan publicly available by Jan. 8 with a final plan completed no later than Feb. 27.

Those preliminary deadlines would run right into the state’s candidate filing period. In normal election years, nomination papers are available starting in February.

But state lawmakers have already pushed that back to March 1 in anticipation of redistricting taking longer than usual.

The Senate has also asked the AG’s office to petition the court to extend the commission’s deadlines.

Most Discussion Will Happen Behind Closed Doors

Most of the commission’s discussions regarding its new timeline and hiring staff took place behind closed doors, not in the public session, on Monday. However, the commissioners reconvened in public to announce their decisions.

Sandy Ma, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii, said the open-government organization objects to the commission’s use of closed sessions to discuss topics like the impact of census data on the commission’s timeline.

“This information is especially critical for the public watching and attending these meetings,” Ma said.

Mark Mugiishi, the chairman of the commission and CEO of the Hawaii Medical Services Association, said those items had to be taken up during a closed session because they involved personnel and a discussion with the commission’s lawyers regarding the federal data.

The commissioners also divided themselves into two four-member committees to come up with rules for the commission to follow and take part in drawing new political boundaries.

Members of the technical committee are Dylan Nonaka, Charlotte Nekota, Diane Ono and Kevin Rathbun.

The rules committee members are Cal Chipchase, Robin Kennedy, Grant Chun and Randall Nishimura.

Two individuals at Monday’s meeting voiced concerns that the public won’t be able to adequately participate in deliberations involving reapportionment. Screenshot

The committees don’t need to follow the state’s open meetings law because they were organized as Permitted Interaction Groups, according to Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago.

That means they are allowed to conduct much of their business out of the public eye. However, the committees’ proposals must still win approval by the other commissioners.

And proposed reapportionment plans must also be approved by the full commission.

Prior to the panel’s decisions on its committees, Ma asked that the public be allowed to participate in the committees’ discussions and that the committees “not be used as a shield to prevent public participation in the reapportionment process.”

Bart Dame, a national committeeman with the Hawaii Democratic Party, also objected to the use of these closed committees to conduct business. He said that the committees in 2011 also met privately and didn’t always do a good job of summarizing for the public the full extent of their discussions.

“The secrecy last time contributed to the commission going off-track,” Dame said, referencing delays in the last reapportionment process.

Mugiishi said that his goal is to be as “transparent as is feasible.”

The rules committee may elect to use the same rules as the prior commission when it comes to how the commission conducts its business and meetings.

The technical committee would bear the brunt of the commission’s work in drawing political lines. The technical committee would also set parameters for how districts are drawn — for example, if there should be canoe districts that include parts of more than one island — or if multiple lawmakers should be able to represent a single district.

Nonaka, who served on that committee in 2011, said that members of the technical committee would need to make a significant time commitment to redraw the political lines. He told the commissioners to expect weekly meetings lasting several hours each time.

“It’s an arduous process to go thorough — each district by district, island by island — to draw the lines,” he said.

All 76-seats in the Legislature will be up for election in 2022.

Islands may gain or lose seats depending on where the population grew in the state. In 2011, Oahu lost a Senate seat while the Big Island gained one.

Hawaii’s population grew about 7%, just slightly lower than the national average, since the 2010 census. Hawaii’s population was just over 1.4 million as of 2020. 

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