Sterling Higa: When And Where Neighborhood Boards Meet Does Matter - Honolulu Civil Beat

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Sterling Higa

Sterling Higa is a teacher and writer from Honolulu. Find his work at Sterling's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.

When should neighborhood boards resume meeting in person?

It’s a tricky question to answer, one that bears on matters of public health but also questions of government access. And it is only one of several debates taking place: When should appointed boards and commissions return to meeting in person? And when should the legislature allow the public to visit the capitol in person?
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Two years of pandemic have disrupted in-person gathering, and governments are still struggling to adapt to digital meetings. For example, government board meetings are still being canceled for lack of functioning Zoom links and incomplete meeting agendas.

But the pandemic has offered us a chance to re-envision government meetings entirely, to think deliberately about where and when they take place, to reconsider their format.

Meetings of boards and commissions, city councils and the state legislature are crucial to the functioning of government. It’s vital that we make the most of them.

Effective Gathering

“Gathering — the conscious bringing together of people for a reason — shapes the way we think, feel, and make sense of the world,” argues Priya Parker, author of “The Art of Gathering.”

An effective gathering has a clear purpose, says Parker. This purpose governs the choice of a venue, the time of meeting and the composition of the guest list. If you want a quiet discussion, you won’t host it at a rock concert. Similarly, to get a team excited about a new project, you might reconsider meeting in a drab conference room.

Often, neighborhood board meetings are shoehorned into any available venue, but it’s worthwhile to think about where and when they should meet, as communities emerge from the pandemic. To choose the right time and place, we have to answer another question first: What is the purpose of the neighborhood board?

The City and County of Honolulu defines a neighborhood board meeting as “a monthly open forum between government representatives, elected officials, and members of the community.”

If you attend or watch a recording of a neighborhood board meeting, you’ll witness a one- to three-hour procession of presentations and discussions.

Reapportionment Meeting on Blaze’s desk.
A Hawaii Reapportionment Commission meeting held online in 2021. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Meetings begin with brief reports from the Honolulu Fire Department, Honolulu Police Department and Board of Water Supply. The remaining time is divided between reports from elected officials (or their proxies), presentations from community members and discussions of community concerns.

Board chairs have near-total control over the agenda. Some chairs allow elected officials to present before board business. Others require that officials wait until after the community has discussed its concerns. In a two-hour meeting, this is not a trivial decision.

Ostensibly, the purpose of the neighborhood board is to create an open flow of information between government and the citizenry. The representatives of government agencies and proxies of elected officials aggregate community concerns and give them voice in the halls of government. In exchange, they answer questions and dispense vital information to community members.

But this underestimates the civic potential of a neighborhood board. A board can be a venue for problem solving, for identifying problems and marshaling community resources to solve them.

Some neighborhood boards have taken on this additional responsibility, forming standing committees to address ongoing community issues. Other boards are more reactive, and their meetings tend toward kvetching.

Location, Location, Location

Zoom and Webex meetings do more than strip away nonverbal communication and physical presence. They also exclude certain segments of the population, especially those who do not have access to digital technology.

Of course, neighborhood board meetings have always excluded segments of the population, simply by being scheduled at a fixed time. If a board meeting starts at 6 p.m., it may not permit attendance by those who finish work at that time and have to commute home. If a board meeting starts later, it may exclude elderly people who have poor night vision and don’t feel comfortable walking or driving home when meetings end around 9 p.m. or 10 p.m.

There is not always room for compromise, though we should be honest about the tradeoffs involved in scheduling meetings, mindful of how the basic choice of time and venue affects the function of our democratic institutions.

For all government bodies, we should ask the following: What is the purpose of this meeting? Who should it serve? And, with the answers to these two questions in mind: Where and when should it convene?

I raise these questions not to answer them, but to contribute to a broader discussion. Perhaps the best place to discuss them would be at a neighborhood board meeting near you.

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About the Author

Sterling Higa

Sterling Higa is a teacher and writer from Honolulu. Find his work at Sterling's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.

Latest Comments (0)

The value of neighborhood boards can be viewed from an economic lens of decentralization theory or alternatively Tiebout's model - that government is more accountable when more local; or that people will vote with their feet to choose jurisdictions that suite their preferences. In Hawaii's case, neighborhood boards are not very accountable in part because they have severely limited authority relative to the centralized City Council. Further, due to costs of housing, in practice there is limited movement across neighborhoods, making inter-neighborhood competition nearly impossible. In short, from standard economic theory, this body has neither teeth nor competition. Give each neighborhood a budget and some power, then we can start talking about whether these are accountable. Until then, it is just a body for transmission of frustration with little tangible benefit. The government does "meetings for the sake of meeting" perfectly.

NoFreedomWithoutObligations · 1 year ago

". . . the legislature allow the public to visit the capitol in person?"Honolulu City Council as well. For two years we have not had the opportunity to observe body language, watch elected officials during meeting breaks or meet new department heads and recently-elected politicians. These are significant losses that reduce our ability to understand decisions that are made that impact our daily lives.

Natalie_Iwasa · 1 year ago

Hawaii is the only state in the union that has no enabling legislation for forming a town, village, or municipal government. The neighborhood boards are a good idea but due to their toothlessness have earned my ironic moniker the 'Neighborhood Exciting.' The standing committees that do form are not capable of action, only advice to the advisory board, and that advice is often over-ruled, wasting the committees' time. Again and again the outlying communities' concerns are delayed to the point of absurdity - as for over a million people there are only 9 City Councilmen/women, and it takes 5 to do anything. Topdown do-nothingism means no local control. My area needs more control over its destiny, and, if we had the rights of every other US citizen in every other state in the union, we would be able to form a municipality or town council. 'Lucky we live Hawaii.' In meantime NB's are, effectively, just venting opportunities run by unpaid volunteers who keep City Council and Mayor from having to handle too many constituent service calls. The unpaid Board members should get, at least, an occasional gratuity from the City Council and Mayor's office!

Haleiwa_Dad · 1 year ago

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