Give Hawaii’s Capitol Back To Its People - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Gene Ward

Rep. Gene Ward (R-Hawaii Kai) is co-chair of the House Small Business Caucus.

As we see Hawaii’s vaccine rollout climbing nationwide ranks and rates of coronavirus outbreaks drastically declining, it is safe to say the worst of this tragic health crisis is finally over. What remains, however, is a crisis in our democracy.

Our beloved State Capitol Building — the “people’s house” — remains closed to the general public despite the large influx of tourists and the freedoms that Honolulu residents are presently able to enjoy under Tier 3 of the county’s phased reopening. While residents can throw beach parties or mingle freely at bars, they are forbidden from directly engaging with the officials they have elected into public office.

This act incapacitates good and honest lawmaking and further undermines the trust of the public in local government. Hawaii already has one of the lowest civic engagement rates in the nation, and it would not be surprising if that number has lowered in recent months.

The 2021 legislative session was unprecedented to say the least, as it forced a digital way of conducting business. Testifying from one’s home or while on the road to pick up the kids would have been unimaginable even a few short months before the pandemic hit.

In fact, remote testimony has demonstrated how advantageous it could be for neighbor island residents who do not have the means to travel or for those who may have obligations elsewhere.

However, it has become apparent that not only the public, but legislators themselves, have reaped the benefits of these conveniences.

Why Not Screen Everyone?

Perhaps key political leaders are now stuck in a comfort zone where they can easily avoid confrontation from the public that holds them accountable to their actions — the voices from the people they are supposed to represent. Practicing avoidance has never been easier when communication is now just another message in the inbox or another invitation to a Zoom meeting.

Masked and plexiglass partitioned House members listen to Speaker Saiki’s speech that was postponed due to opening day security concerns. February 2, 2021
Masked and partitioned House members listen to Speaker Scott Saiki’s speech on Feb. 2. Health and security protocols have been in place for over a year now at the Capitol due to the pandemic. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

One could even suspect that prolonging the Capitol’s closure is an endeavor for the majority to consolidate more power for its agenda. If you aren’t a lobbyist or high-profile figure with deep pockets, you can forget about face-to-face contact with legislators. Under current rules, legislators can choose who they decide to let into the building at their own discretion.

Undemocratically, this also grants them the power to only hear the voices they want to hear. This practice is counterintuitive to why the Capitol is closed in the first place.

Thanks to the hardworking staff at the Capitol who have implemented strict, yet efficient, safety protocols upon entry to the building, we’ve demonstrated it is entirely possible to conduct business as usual with peace of mind. Legislators and staff are required to go through temperature screenings and wear a sticker indicating admittance. If we could do this for legislators and staff, what is the excuse for not being able to do this for the public?

Perhaps key political leaders are now stuck in a comfort zone.

COVID-19 is a deadly virus and the safety measures implemented at the Capitol are imperative. We’ve faced a myriad of challenges and demonstrated our collective resilience over the past year.

However, we’ve also walked miles away from mid-2020 conditions and have made all the necessary steps to propel back to a high-functioning society. It is time for Hawaii to join the 21 states that have already opened their doors to the public, to amplify the public dialogue between our community and our elected officials.

The Capitol’s open-air architecture was designed to reflect democracy as it should be — open and transparent. Prolonging the Capitol’s closure defeats the very purpose of what this building symbolizes. Though political unrest is a constant as the government and the people may not always agree, communication remains the key ingredient to a keeping a democracy alive.

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About the Author

Gene Ward

Rep. Gene Ward (R-Hawaii Kai) is co-chair of the House Small Business Caucus.

Latest Comments (0)

'Amplify the public dialogue between our community and our elected officials.'  How refreshing to hear one of our elected officials state the obvious.  The question remains why there hasn't been better outreach and I suspect it part inertia and the clinging to the old way of doing things.  Change is necessary and what the pandemic has illuminated is that standard ways of doing things need to change to meet the changing dynamics facing our future generations.  To meet these challenges requires a wholesale change in the faces in the legislature and that requires that we all become involved in our elections.

incredibles2 · 1 year ago

It seems like every single article regarding the legislature, HPD, and the entire bureaucracy of departments,  commissions, and committees, focuses on the same problem time and time again: lack of transparency.

Scotty_Poppins · 1 year ago

The Capitol has been given to its people.Problem is, those people aren't us. We just get the bills.

pull · 1 year ago

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