A once-in-a-decade process that grants citizens of Maui, Molokai and Lanai the chance to redefine the responsibilities of their local government is coming to a head with a final round of public hearings set later this month on a sweeping set of proposals to alter Maui County’s charter.

Maui County locator mapTaken as a whole, a preliminary set of 85 proposals assembled by the Maui Charter Commission would dramatically increase the size of government, establishing four new departments and 19 new boards and commissions. The reforms are estimated to cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

Public hearings scheduled for Jan. 26-27 offer voters a chance to weigh in on charter amendment proposals that would rewrite the election process for council members, abolish the Maui Planning Commission and increase qualifications for the chief of police.

After considering public feedback, members of the charter commission will translate the final proposals into a digestible collection of charter amendment questions for the 2022 election ballot. Voters in November will be able to pass or reject them, one by one.

For commissioners, the challenge ahead is to parse down so many proposals that aim to improve local government into approximately 15 charter amendment questions that are digestible, clear, concise and reflect the wants and needs of the constituents of Maui County.

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

Charter Commission Vice Chairman Gary Chun raised the question of whether an overwhelming collection of amendment proposals on the ballot might drive down voter participation, signaling that the commission has lots of editing work ahead.

“I was talking with a neighbor of mine concerning the breadth and scope and volume of the initiatives that we’ve worked on … and he expressed the opinion that if he gets a big fat envelope in the mail, there’s a chance folks could just throw the darn thing away and not even participate in our election,” Chun said. “And I would hate for us to unwittingly, with the best of intentions, (create that) scenario.”

The commission has the option of proposing to voters an entirely new county charter that incorporates the proposed amendments. But Commissioner David DeLeon, who also served on the 2012 Maui Charter Commission, noted this all-or-nothing approach could lead voters to reject many good and widely supported reforms for the sake of rejecting one or two controversial ones.

“If we don’t get serious about culling we’re going to be in trouble at the end because I have not talked to anybody who thinks this kind of load is going to be fair for the voters,” DeLeon said. “We can put it all in one charter and create a new charter. But then you take a chance of the whole thing going down in flames.”

The 2012 charter commission worked through similar challenges.

Attorney Lance Collins representing the Kokua Council during press conference held at Harris Methodist Church. 25 july 2016
Attorney Lance Collins resigned as chairman of the Maui Charter Commission on Dec. 16 and was appointed a per diem district court judge later that day. Vice Chairman Grant Chun presided over Tuesday’s commission meeting. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Whereas the current commission has so far approved 85 measures, the 2012 commission grappled with 120 proposals that it synthesized into 21 ballot questions. But after a second round of public hearings, the commission ultimately sent forth 11 ballot questions to the Maui County Council for review.

Commissioner Keoni Kuoha, a former director at Maui AIDS Foundation and Papahana Kuaola, said he doesn’t think there’s a “magic number.” Rather, the goal should be to ensure that voters can “reasonably understand what’s before them and make informed decisions,” he said.

At its next regularly scheduled meeting on Feb. 8, the commission will whittle down the proposals and finalize its list of charter amendment questions in a preliminary report due for submission to the council on Feb. 18.

But first the commission will host the public hearings on the proposed reforms Jan. 26 and Jan. 27.

Commissioner Paul Deslauriers, director of the Maui Pono Network, underscored the importance of these events and reminded commissioners of their role in helping to ensure that voters clearly understand the charter amendment proposals that will appear on the November election ballot.

“I think that we need to start early on with this education piece so that our community can be informed regardless of what type of misinformation, propaganda (or) other issues that may come up from offshore interests that may not want to see some of these changes happen because it may affect their abilities and capacities to get what they want in the future,” he said.

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

Feb. 18 is the deadline for the commission to submit its final list of approved charter amendment questions to appear on the 2022 election ballot.

Some Proposals Would Come At A Cost

Increasing the size of Maui County’s government would not be free.

At a regularly scheduled Maui Charter Commission meeting on Tuesday, former County Councilman Riki Hokama weighed whether some of the more costly proposals are worth the price tag. He also urged the commission to be up-front with voters about the financial investment attached to some proposals.

“I don’t think that our charter is broken at all,” said Hokama. “So what is the financial impact to me … for all of these proposals that you are asking us to consider? I want to know if my taxes are going to go up.”

Kalana O Maui Bldg in Kahului
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. Ludwig Laab/Civil Beat/2021

The 85 proposals under consideration would create four new county departments by splitting the Department of Housing and Human Concerns into separate agencies and establishing new departments for hearings officers, oiwi, or native, resources and ethics.

According to a report presented to the commission by Maui Corporation Counsel on Tuesday, a new Department of Housing Development — which would require a director, staff and office space — would cost taxpayers at least a half-million dollars.

It could cost more than a million dollars to create a department for hearings officers, the report states, while new departments devoted to ethics and oiwi resources would come at an estimated cost of at least $400,000 and between $300,000 and $500,000, respectively.

Maui County currently has 32 boards and commissions, but that number would increase to 50, with the additions including at least eight elected neighborhood boards, a selection commission and a nomination commission.

New boards and commissions would need secretaries at an estimated cost of between $300,000 and $450,000. The number of volunteers required to fill board seats would rise from 263 to 370.

One of the most consequential proposals 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.

The estimated cost of staffing these regional planning commissions falls between $400,000 and $500,000.

It’s unclear what the financial implications of other proposals might be.

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.

Proponents of the change say regional voting could help combat the name recognition problem some political newcomers face campaigning against entrenched elected officials.

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

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.

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

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