Residents can expect some changes to take effect at the next meeting Friday.

In the wake of a tumultuous, 18-hour long meeting in which residents said they felt “disenfranchised” and held “hostage” while waiting to have a say in their local government’s decision-making process, the new Maui County Council chair says she’s planning to change up the rules to make it easier to testify. 

Maui County locator map

During the meeting, which dragged from 9 a.m. Friday to 3 a.m. Saturday, many residents grew increasingly frustrated because they were stuck waiting around until the council took up the agenda item they wanted to comment on. 

“I didn’t get the memo that this was a sleepover for County Council,” Carol Lee Kamekona, the last citizen to testify that day, told the members just before 11 p.m. She was also among residents who signed up to testify on an item earlier that afternoon, a discussion that began hours earlier.

The Maui County Council meeting went from 9 a.m. Friday until almost 3 a.m. Saturday. (Maui County Council/Screenshot/2023)

Councilwoman Alice Lee, who was chosen as chair late Friday evening, said in an interview Monday that during the council’s next meeting on Friday, residents will be given the option to testify at the start of the meeting or before council members begin discussing each new item. 

In the past, Lee said, it was the norm for Maui County citizens to share their thoughts with council members on a number of different issues at the start of each meeting. But then a new law took effect last year making it so the council was required to take testimony immediately before each new item, a change that had dramatic repercussions considering it’s not uncommon for the council to take up between 50 to 60 items per meeting, Lee said.

For a while, the council tried to do both, Lee said, but then things became “so unwieldy” that testimony was only allowed before each item. In the future, however, she’s planning to change that. 

Alice Lee was chosen to serve as council chair 11 hours into Friday’s meeting. Tasha Kama had served as chair during the start of the year. (Maui County Council/Screenshot/2023)

It’s a change that some residents want to see made permanent.

“People should be able to come in the morning, give their testimony and go about their day,” said George Burnette, a Maui resident who arrived at council chambers before 9 a.m. Friday with testimony prepared on a number of issues, only to learn that he’d have to stick around all day if he wanted to share his thoughts on different topics — something that wasn’t possible because he’d committed to spend the day volunteering.

Burnette is among those who pointed out to council members that forcing people to wait all day restricts the average citizen’s ability to participate in their government’s decision-making. Even when council meetings end at reasonable times — for example, 5 p.m. instead of 3 a.m. — Burnette said many people don’t have the ability to drop everything at work and follow the council meeting until their name gets called to speak.

Typically, Maui County residents who want to share their thoughts with council members either in-person within council chambers or through the county’s videoconferencing platform are given three minutes to speak on each issue. But for Friday’s meeting, that time had been cut back to two minutes, according to meeting agendas.

Council member Tasha Kama had initially served as the chair of the Maui County Council until Lee was seated last week. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022)

But those weren’t the only concerns about accessibility and transparency that residents raised during Friday’s meeting. In some citizens’ view, the decision to continue the meeting into the wee hours of the morning also made it harder for people to participate and understand how their government works.

“I’m very tired,” Maui County resident Bridget Mowat told council members around 9 p.m., with nearly six hours to go until the meeting ended. “And I cannot understand why you folks would allow or push for testifiers to stay up all night.” 

By the time the last citizen testified just before 11 p.m., the council chambers had nearly emptied. Fewer than a dozen people tuned into the meeting’s livestream on Facebook. And still, for another four more hours in the middle of the night, the members continued their heated discussions, making sweeping changes to the council’s power structure and setting Maui County’s policy future in a new direction. 

This year, the council is steered by a new majority, made up of Tasha Kama of Kahului, Alice Lee of Wailuku, Waihee and Waikapu and Yuki Lei Sugimura of Upcountry and first-time members Tom Cook of South Maui and Nohe Uʻu-Hodgins of Makawao-Haiku-Paia. The progressive members, who controlled the council in recent years, now make up a minority. They are Gabe Johnson of Lanai, Tamara Paltin of West Maui, Keani Rawlins-Fernandez of Molokai and Shane Sinenci of East Maui.

The council’s progressive faction is now in the minority after the last election. (Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022)

The new power dynamic is bringing big changes. Over the course of the midnight discussions, the members renamed the majority of the council’s previous committees.

Johnson, who’d chaired the Affordable Housing Committee, was ousted from his spot. Instead the committee was renamed and Kama was tapped as chair of the new Housing and Land Use Committee. Cook was handed the Water and Infrastructure Committee. And Sinenci, who formerly chaired the Agriculture and Public Trust Committee, was given a new title as leader of the Water Authority, Social Services, and Parks Committee.

One of the biggest shakeups occurred in the Budget, Finance, and Economic Development Committee, one of the most influential committees the council runs. It’s tasked with vetting the mayor’s proposed budget and deciding how nearly $1 billion of government funds are spent.

Rawlins-Fernandez had previously led the committee, pushing to raise taxes on hotels, vacation rentals and luxury homes to raise revenue to pay for affordable housing and other programs for residents. She lost that position, and instead, the new council ushered in a more fiscally conservative future for Maui County.

The committee’s new leader, Sugimura, signaled that she’d shift away from the previous council’s focus on taxing the tourism industry and instead look to curb government spending in the wake of the pandemic’s economic devastation.

“For every add that we want, we have to be able to look at where we’re going to subtract,” Sugimura said.

The council’s next meeting, in which members are expected to discuss more rules on the way the legislative body operates, is scheduled for Friday.

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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