Remote testimony at City Hall, implemented during the coronavirus pandemic, will continue in the future even as government gatherings shift to in-person events, Honolulu City Council officials said Wednesday.

They said that a rule change, approved unanimously Tuesday, allowing for officials to conduct meetings without remote testimony does not have the force of law because it is superseded by state law.

Any confusion over that change was a miscommunication at an event that they saw primarily as an inauguration ceremony, city officials said Wednesday.

Members of the Honolulu City Council were sworn in during the inauguration ceremony at Honolulu Hale on Tuesday. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023

City Council Chair Tommy Waters said in a statement that he is committed to preserving remote testimony.

“Let me be abundantly clear — remote testimony is here to stay,” Waters said. “It’s an integral component in ensuring that all individuals can participate in the process without having to worry about the commute. As Council Chair, I remain committed to public access and will ensure that the public can continue to use such technology. Not only is this required by state law, but it is also our kuleana.”

Waters’ message alleviated concerns by some community advocates, who had feared that remote testimony, which has emerged as a great convenience for county residents, was seriously at risk.

At the inauguration ceremonies Tuesday, the newly convened City Council, with three new members, unanimously voted to approve a number of rule changes.

In the amended rules, the right to remote testimony is no longer guaranteed. Instead the committee chair can more easily establish the terms on which remote testimony can be presented. The new amendments do not address precisely when the testimony will be allowed or precluded.

There is no question that, while popular, remote testimony can add complexity to government meetings and can pose problems at times. It is subject to technical glitches and it can be difficult to impose limits on speakers who continue to talk longer than their allotted time.

Three regular council-watchers — Natalie Iwasa, Choon James and Angela Young — protested to the council at the hearing, saying that eliminating remote testimony would be a hardship for the public and asked them to reconsider the decision.

Choon James, one of the three people who protested the city’s change in rules, said the city’s clarifying statement on Wednesday was “damage control” because remote testimony is very popular among Honolulu residents, although not historically popular among elected officials.

James follows city actions closely but said it is too expensive to drive to Honolulu to testify in person, both because of the cost in time, 90 minutes in traffic each way from Kahuku, and the cost of gasoline.

“For years we had been asking for remote testimony but the response was that it would be very expensive,” said James. “This is one of the few rare positive impacts of Covid. When Covid hit, the city and county had no choice. To our happiness, it works. Remote testimony can work.”

Similarly, state lawmakers had also balked at remote testimony in the past, even though the problems faced by people who live on neighbor islands who wanted to testify were even more difficult than those who live on the North Shore or Waianae coast.

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