As part of a once-in-a-decade process to change the way Maui County’s local government works, voters this year have the chance to decide on a proposal aimed at boosting civic engagement and strengthening citizens’ ability to access local government’s records.

Maui locator map

One of the measures that will be on the ballot for the Nov. 8 election asks if the County Charter — the document that serves as Maui County’s constitution — should be changed to make it so county employees must try to help citizens find the best way to ask for government records and keep any fees for producing those documents as low as possible.

Right now, there’s a state law that requires open access to government records. Still, it’s not uncommon for members of the public to submit requests for records not knowing exactly what documents exist — and then to find little help from government employees who might be able to point them in the right direction.

The ballot question asks if county employees should be required to minimize fees for public records. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2013

Other times, county or state agencies tell citizens that it will cost hundreds — or even thousands — of dollars to put together and give them the records, pricing out the people who want to access them.

“They stop people from accessing information that really tells the truth about what’s happening,” said Paul Deslauriers, who served on the charter commission that put together the proposal.

The change in Maui County’s charter would go a step further: Whenever someone asks for public records, government employees would have to help citizens figure out what sorts of records are available, how they’re stored and ways to ask for them so requests for records aren’t denied.

It would also require that governments “make every effort to ensure that any fees or other charges are minimized.”

“The records are the people’s records,” Brian Black of the Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest told the charter commission in a meeting to discuss the proposals. “And we need to be as open as possible in order to make sure that the people understand what’s happening in government.”

Charter Amendment Proposal 5 is a three-part ballot question that asks voters if they want to allow the county council to be more flexible in when and where it holds meetings at the beginning of each new council term. That’s when the newly elected members decide who they want to serve as council chair and run various council committees.

Right now, that meeting must be held at a certain time and place — something that caused problems in the middle of the pandemic when people were avoiding gathering indoors.

The other question in the proposal asks voters if they want to affirm that residents in certain communities can participate in council meetings remotely. It builds on the change made by Maui County voters a decade ago that ensured residents in rural communities on Lanai and Molokai and in Hana could participate in council meetings without having to travel.

“Up until then, if somebody from Hana or Molokai or Lanai wanted to speak to any county council or county council committee, they had to come literally to council chambers,” said Dick Mayer, former member of the Maui Planning Commission and retired Maui Community College professor.

For residents of Molokai or Lanai, that meant spending the time and money to fly or take the ferry to Maui to testify for just a few minutes. Hana residents, meanwhile, had to make a two-hour-plus drive to the county building in Wailuku.

A photograph of the county building in Wailuku.
State law currently ensures that the public has open access to government records. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

A decade later, some wanted to see the County Charter changed to require that residents participating remotely in council meetings have access to both audio and video. The final proposal doesn’t include that language but does have a provision that public county meetings can be held in the government building or over an accessible videoconferencing platform.

Since the pandemic struck, holding meetings through a videoconferencing platform has been the norm. Even after pandemic restrictions eased and the county started holding meetings in-person, many residents have continued to engage in the government’s decision-making process virtually because it’s more convenient.

Over the course of more than a year discussing all of the ways to change how the local government runs, even the the charter commission held their meetings remotely.

“I didn’t have to kill two hours driving over; I just got up to my laptop,” Douglas Ward Mardfin, the charter commission member from Hana, said during an informational video discussing the proposal. “We had long meetings for five, six hours sometimes, but we were able to get a lot of work done.”

The proposal is one of 13 that voters are asked to decide on during the Nov. 8 election. Eleven of the proposals came from the Charter Commission, which is tasked every 10 years with reviewing the county’s constitutional document and finding possible ways to improve it. The County Council, meanwhile, put forward the other two questions that ask if voters want to create community water authorities and allow employees to work remotely to combat climate change. The council can put forward proposals during elections every two years.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

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