A review is underway of 135 proposals to alter Maui County’s charter, a once-a-decade process to give citizens of Maui, Molokai and Lanai a chance to refine the political system that shapes their daily lives. 

Among the proposed charter amendments are rewriting the election process for council members, abolishing the Maui planning commission and reducing the police department’s influence over the police commission charged with hiring and firing the chief of police.

Formed in March, the eleven-member Maui Charter Commission will whittle down the proposals to 15 charter amendment questions for the 2022 election ballot. 

“It’s our government and it gets better when more people with a greater variety of experience engage in that government,” said charter commission member Keoni Kuoha, a former director at Maui AIDS Foundation and Papahana Kuaola. 

“I think we tend to show up at the polls every two to four years and think that our work is done,” he said, “and that’s only the start of our work.”

Maui voters in 2022 will decide the fate of as many as 15 proposed charter amendments that seek to refine county elections, policing, planning and zoning and more. 

The commission also includes a former county managing director, a senior associate at an urban planning agency, a Lanai airport firefighter, the director of a political action committee, an attorney, a high school teacher, a college lecturer and a small business owner.

Historically, commission members have been appointed by the mayor and the commission would generally only consider two dozen to three dozen proposals submitted by residents. 

But this year, each county council member appointed a member to the commission and the mayor chose two members, following Maui voters’ approval of an amendment on the 2020 election ballot to change the composition of the charter commission.

The result is a commission whose members represent a broader cross-section of the community than in the past, said attorney Lance Collins, chairman of the commission. 

“I know that in the past there were charter commissions that felt that it was basically their job to block certain ideas from getting onto the ballot,” Collins said. “I don’t think our commission as a whole generally feels that way. 

“People have different views about what should go on the ballot and that guides their vote, but I don’t think that this commission is trying to block anything. We just want to be thoughtful because we have limited space on the ballot so we can’t just go ahead and put forth 135 proposals.”

Attorney Lance Collins representing the Kokua Council during press conference held at Harris Methodist Church. 25 july 2016
Attorney Lance Collins is chairman of the Maui Charter Commission. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Election Reform

One of the most sweeping proposals would rewrite the rules for County Council elections by abolishing at-large council seats in favor of nine representatives split evenly among three districts. 

Residents would only vote for representatives to fill the three council seats in their district, and a seat would be guaranteed for the county’s most remote regions: Molokai, Lanai and Hana.

Currently the Maui County Council includes nine at-large members, with a guaranteed seat for both Molokai and Lanai.

Dick Mayer, a former Maui College professor and land planner who put forth the proposal, said regional voting could help combat the name recognition problem some political newcomers face campaigning against entrenched elected officials.

The amendment is designed to help take money out of council races, lowering the barriers to launching a competitive campaign for a seat on the county council.

“It’s difficult for people in Maui to run for office initially because there are three islands, so with that geography you have to run a fairly expensive campaign just to get your name out,” Mayer said. 

“Rather than run islandwide, I thought it would be better to run in a smaller, defined area and have an easier time getting their name out.”

Maui County Building
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the Maui Charter Commission to solicit charter amendment proposals from residents online. Going virtual led to an overwhelming response from citizens eager to refine the county political system. Bryan Berkowitz/Civil Beat/2020

Mayer suggested grouping Lanai, South Maui and West Maui into a district since these areas have tourism-based economies and face similar challenges. 

Another district would include Molokai and Upcountry Maui, which share rural, agrarian values, Mayer said. 

A third district would encompass Hana and Maui’s Central Valley. While in many ways these regions couldn’t be more different, Mayer said they are linked in that Hana residents rely on regular trips to central Maui for medical services, shopping and other necessities unavailable to them.

Mayer said the three proposed districts have similar population sizes.

A separate proposal related to the election process would establish a ranked-choice voting system for seats on the County Council, with voters selecting their top six candidates for the three seats in their district in the primary election and their top three candidates in the general election.

Planning And Zoning Issues

Another major proposal would abolish the Maui Planning Commission and establish in its place a planning commission for each community plan area

Since Molokai and Lanai already have their own planning commissions, the proposal would mostly affect Maui, where there are six regions with separate community plans that guide the area’s character and inform policy decisions about land use, parks and infrastructure.

A mountain of proposals received by the commission would dramatically change how the county governs planning and zoning issues, and Kuoha said they are an indicator of the longstanding public frustration over the housing crisis that continues to plague the island. 

“We have friends, we have family that have all had to move to the U.S. continent in order to have a comfortable standard of living,” Kuoha said. “And if that’s happening, something in our government isn’t attending to the needs of its citizens.

“I don’t think it’s by evil design — maybe some people do — but I just think it’s by poor design, and people with more time and more money have the ability to take advantage of poor design. So that’s where we need to strengthen the design of our government to support more positive outcomes for our people.”

Police Reform

The commission is considering several police reforms, including a proposal to change the Maui Police Commission from an entity that essentially hires and fires the chief to a civilian oversight board that is more involved in the discipline of police officers and functions more independently of the department. 

There’s also a proposal to create a civilian oversight board to handle police officer discipline.

Another consequential proposal would require Maui County to operate as a bilingual government, which would mean that all official county notices would need to be issued in Hawaiian and English. Hawaiian language interpretive services would be required for county events and meetings.

A series of proposals seeks to establish an independent selection commission to appoint the county clerk, auditor, prosecuting attorney and corporation counsel, as opposed to having the mayor appoint them.  

The charter commission started soliciting amendment proposals in March and began the process of reviewing them in June. 

The end of January is the deadline for the commission to submit its final list of no more than 15 approved charter amendment questions to appear on the 2022 election ballot. 

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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