A nine-member panel responsible for the once-in-a-decade task of redrawing Oahu’s political boundaries based on census data has faced criticism from democracy advocates that the process so far lacks transparency and “meaningful public input.”
The Oahu Reapportionment Commission has until Oct. 26 to complete the final map of nine City Council districts based on the 2020 census data, which aims to make sure each district has roughly the same number of people. This also will determine which council members people can vote for in the 2022 elections.
Critics say the tight deadline doesn’t leave enough time for the commission to sufficiently examine the census data or for the public to contribute to the debate. The problem, critics say, is compounded by meeting materials not given out to the public in a timely manner to allow for informed testimony.
Initially, advocates complained about members of the public being given only one minute to testify, but in response to that pressure, the commission two weeks ago changed course and allowed three minutes.
The commission has met four times since July 15 to discuss plans to redraw nine districts based on the population numbers.
Other commissions whose work is underway are the Hawaii Reapportionment Commission and the Hawaii Island Reapportionment Commission.
The state reapportionment commission is determining new boundaries for two U.S. House seats and 76 state legislative seats, while the Hawaii island commission is redrawing nine City Council districts. Maui and Kauai counties are not a part of the process because they have at-large seats instead of districts.
Upcoming meetings will be critical as the Oahu commission will take the census data on population growth into consideration when deciding where political lines should be redrawn.
“We want the process of redistricting to be open and transparent,” said Sandy Ma, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii, a grassroots organization working to boost public participation in government. “We want the community to be able to talk about how their community can be represented fairly in this redistricting process given how much the community has changed in the last 10 years.”
According to 2020 census data, Oahu’s population topped 1 million for the first time – a 6.6% increase since 2010. Most of the population growth happened on the Leeward Coast, with a 20.7% increase, and city officials expect the biggest changes to occur there.
Ma submitted written testimony at the Sept. 1 meeting complaining that the commission’s meeting packets, which contain information such as staff presentations and reports about redistricting, were not submitted ahead of time.
While the commission isn’t required by law to post those packets prior to meetings, Ma says they are important for public input. As it is, she said, she and other advocates must submit written testimony without seeing the materials, then try to read and absorb them as the commission is talking.
“It’s like the public is not being allowed to give meaningful testimony,” she said.
During the Sept. 1 meeting, Commissioner Natalia Hussey-Burdick also voiced her concerns about the meeting packets being made available to commissioners and the public only five minutes before the meeting. She said she wanted them to be available 48 hours in advance.
Elections administrator Rex Quidilla told the commission that the packets were prepared just hours before the meeting by the commission’s staff at the City and County of Honolulu clerk’s office.
Chairman James “Duke” Aiona defended the process, saying, “I don’t see how anyone is put at a disadvantage.”
“They get it out as quickly as they can,” he said at the meeting. “Everybody is on the same level in regards to getting the information and getting the packets. Of course it takes time. All the agenda items are there. They’re broad enough for you to talk about.”
Hussey-Burdick disagreed, saying “I understand as someone who prepares packets myself. I understand the time and the work that goes into all of this, but given the scope and the work that we’re doing is going to affect all elections in the next 10 years. I would appreciate more time to review these maps before walking in here today.”
Advocates also have questioned the creation of permitted interaction groups, which allow a certain number of commissioners to meet without violating the state’s open meetings law.
They questioned the Hawaii Reapportionment Commission’s use of PIGs to discuss its new timeline and hiring staff. But the commission’s groups are still meeting behind closed doors.
Given that only three people have testified so far before the Oahu commission, Hussey-Burdick hopes there will be a greater effort to involve the public.
“I would love to see more outreach,” she said in an interview. “I think the reason we only have three people testifying is that people just don’t understand that this is even going on.”
The Oahu Reapportionment Commission will meet on Sept. 28 at 6 p.m. to vote on which of the four map plans to present to the public for consideration. The public will be given a chance to testify on Oct. 7 and Oct. 11.
The Oahu Reapportionment Commission will count military and out-of-state students, unlike the Hawaii Reapportionment Commission.
Military personnel and dependents make up 6.3% of Honolulu County’s population, while there are 6,589 non-resident students.
The agenda for the Sept. 28 meeting can be found here.
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.