Community Denounces District Voting
“If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” That was the message Molokai residents gave members of the Maui Charter Commission last week, when more than a dozen community members testified against proposed changes to the Maui County Charter. Charter proposals include instituting a district voting system to elect the Maui County Council, which could take away a Molokai resident’s seat.
The Charter Commission, an 11-member board nominated by the Mayor and approved by the Maui County Council, is formed once a decade to review the Maui County Charter. Amendments proposed by the Commission are placed on the 2012 ballot for voters to decide.
The Molokai community meeting, held at the Mitchell Pauole Center July 11, was attended by about 50 residents. The visit was part of a county-wide series to gather public input on modifying the charter. While a variety of changes have been recommended by outside parties, the commission as a group has not yet announced any official amendment proposals.
District Voting Proposed
Maui County Council members currently represent nine districts; each member must reside in the district he or she represents. Molokai is one district, Lanai is another, and Maui is divided into seven districts. Every voter in Maui County may vote for each council seat, a process known as “at large” voting.
In the proposed district voting, voters of each district elect only their district’s council member. In this scenario, law requires districts must be of equal size. This means Molokai’s 7,000-person population would be combined with another district, such as Hana and/or Lanai.
While other organizations have made proposals on the changes, Dave DeLeon is the only Charter Commission member who has publicly promoted his own proposal. He said the current system is flawed because Lanai and Molokai council incumbents are “nearly invulnerable to challenge,” according to his proposal recommending district voting. He called the current system disproportional, noting Lanai, Molokai and Hana have 33 percent of the Council seats while representing about 7 percent of the County’s total population.
In an attempt to calm concerns that district voting would take away Molokai’s and Lanai’s voices on the County Council, he recommended creating elected island boards which would replace each island’s planning commission. The boards would serve as the “official voice of their community at the county, state, and national levels.”
Testifiers Reject Change
None of the Molokai testifiers supported district voting. Resident Lori Buchanan criticized DeLeon, calling for his removal from the commission. She said his decision to publicly release a proposal at this stage in the process was unethical and a conflict of interest in his role as a commissioner.
Buchanan, who serves on the Molokai Planning Commission, likened DeLeon’s suggestion of island boards to “hanging a fictitious carrot in front of us” because of the lengthy and confusing legal process required to create such an entity.
While DeLeon’s proposal points to unchallenged Molokai and Lanai incumbents as problematic, many testifiers said it shows they are good at their jobs and understand county-wide issues. They also raised questions about the cost of travel required to represent multiple islands.
“Are we truly making smart choices, especially during the time we don’t have the money to be making these not really smart choices?” asked resident testifier Julia Keli`i Kuli-Peters.
Most testifiers worried that Molokai would lose its voice on the County Council. Council Chair Danny Mateo, Molokai’s current representative, is accessible and understands Molokai’s needs and challenges, but somebody from Maui might not, they said. While in his last term, Mateo has publicly argued against the proposal.
Another issue heard by the Charter Commission is a proposed elimination of the Fire & Public Safety Commission, a nine-member board appointed by the mayor and approved by the County Council which appoints the fire chief, among other duties. At a previous public hearing on Maui, former Maui fire Capt. Joseph Blackburn testified in favor of removing the commission, saying it added “another layer of bureaucracy” to managing the Fire Department, according to The Maui News.
Molokai resident and firefighter Greg Jenkins testified against that suggestion, saying he does not support giving the mayor the power of selecting and removing the fire chief, nor “removing any powers that currently rest with the Fire and Public Safety Commission.”
The Charter Commission will hold its final public hearing on July 25 at the Kihei Community Center on Maui. They plan to return to Molokai with official proposals around December, when community members can provide feedback, according to Commission Chair Joshua Stone.
Six or more of the 11 commissioners must vote in favor of a proposal to place it on the 2012 ballot. It may also be placed on the ballot by petition to the council, signed by at least 10 percent of county voters, or by petition to the county clerk, signed by at least 20 percent of county voters.
Stone responded to testifiers’ demands to put make more information available on the Charter Commission’s website at co.maui.hi.us, saying they are working “diligently” to do so. The Commission’s e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.